Texting while driving: A deadly combination

  • Published
  • By Steve Serrette
  • 72nd Air Base Wing Safety Office
Recently, during the morning rush hour, a 53-year-old driver of a blue Dodge Caravan was traveling north on Interstate 5 outside Seattle when he took his eyes off the road to scan an email on his Blackberry, the state patrol says. And that's how he hit the white Mazda, which clipped the green Honda, which rammed the black Toyota SUV before spinning into the other lane and plowing into a city bus. Forget DWI. The big new traffic-safety issue is DWT - Driving While Texting.

Few driver distractions seem quite as frighteningly intrusive as attempting to read and type messages while weaving in traffic. The first reported incident of DWT may have been in Tennessee in 2005 when a man died while texting when he lost control of his pickup and plunged down an embankment. In Colorado that same year, a teenager served ten days in jail after he struck and killed a bicyclist while texting a friend. It should go without saying, driving while texting can be, and is, a lethal combination because it requires drivers to look down at their phones rather than the road ahead.

Driving while texting on an electronic device is the newest, and continuing, driver distraction danger. A recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute revealed that 80-percent of crashes and 65-percent of near-crashes involve some sort of driver distraction occurring within three seconds before the vehicle crash. According to the study, the principal distractions that led to vehicle crashes include, but are not limited to:

· Cellphone usage
· Reaching for objects inside the vehicle
· Looking (rubbernecking) at an object or event outside of the vehicle
· Reading while driving
· Applying makeup

Cellphones with text-messaging capabilities further increase the risk of driver distraction. Because of that, U.S. drivers are now witnessing the bloody and gruesome results on our nation's highways, byways and side streets that can and does occur as a result of DWT.

According to a recent Car and Driver study, drivers who text while operating a vehicle are three to four times slower than drunk drivers in applying brakes to avoid collisions. Although many states have already or will employ some form of texting ban in the near future, such legislation has been slow to catch on because oftentimes it takes a tragedy before lawmakers react.

Many distractions come into play while driving a vehicle, including dealing with "road-ragers" and millions of drivers pressed to get from Point A to Point B. The more distractions placed in front of drivers, the more likely they'll become involved in an accident. Text messaging is fine if you're sitting in an airport or at home, but not while operating a vehicle (land or water).

People know better, but continue to text while driving anyway and because folks are human, they also tend to do things without thinking. For example, carefully consider the act of maneuvering a 3,000 hunk of steel at any speed in traffic and looking away from the road for even a moment. Does this make sense to anyone? Yet that is exactly what a lot of people are doing when they send or receive text messages while operating a vehicle.

According to another report by the National Safety Council, of the 1.6 million car crashes caused in any given recent year, a minimum of 200,000 crashes were caused by drivers who were texting. The NSC has called for a complete ban on all cellphone use and texting while driving. In this day and age, there is an overabundance of possible distractions for drivers. Even having a conversation with a passenger can be highly distracting for some vehicle operators. However, none is more deadly than taking one's eyes off the road to send a text message.

Since the VTTI study showed some direct correlations between many crashes and text messages, complete bans on texting should cut down on driving accidents caused by DWT. To maximize driving safety, and since DWT is a deadly multi-tasking distraction, drivers must put forth a concentrated personal effort to cut down on distractions and keep their eyes and minds focused on the task at hand -- the road. Texting involves a dualistic form of multi-tasking requiring both physical and cognitive abilities. The physical distraction involves the holding of the cell phone and the cognitive requires visual comprehension to read and send text messages.

The end results are a delayed reaction time and inability to give full attention to the driving situation. When you're traveling at speeds of 55 mph or more, you can lose control of a situation in the blink of an eye. Remember, it takes just under 4 seconds to cover the length of a football field at 55 mph!

If you notice another vehicle swerving, crossing over the center or lane lines on the road, fluctuating in speed erratically or coming to abrupt stops and near-misses with other cars, maneuver your vehicle as far away as possible as these are very probable signs of texting while driving.

And for your own safety and the safety of others on the road, enact a personal DWT ban for yourself and your family. Do not use your cellphone while in your car, whether it's hands-free or hand-held, to talk or to text. The risk is simply too great, and no life is worth sacrificing over a phone call or text message.