Past Event

Texting all drivers: Keep your hands on the wheel

On September 30 and October 1, the U.S. Department of Transportation will hold a summit to address the dangers of text-messaging and other behind-the-wheel distractions. Senior transportation officials, elected officials, safety advocates, law enforcement representations, and academics will convene in Washington, D.C. to discuss ideas on combating distracted driving.

According to a study released by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, texting while driving is dangerous. Researchers found that truckers’ collision risk was 23 times greater than when not texting. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia now ban text messaging for all drivers. This week, big automakers expressed their support for banning American drivers from text messaging with a hand-held device, Reuters reported. “The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents all domestic and several overseas carmakers, said in a statement that writing or reading text messages affects a driver’s ability to operate a car safely.”

Utah has one of the toughest no-texting-while-driving laws in the country. “If you are just caught texting while driving, it can be up to three months in jail and a $750 fine,” says Brent Wilhite, program director for Zero Fatalities, the state’s public campaign against distracted driving, told National Public Radio. “And if you kill someone, it’s up to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine,” he said.

Last month, Illinois became the 17th state to ban texting while driving when Gov. Pat Quinn signed an amendment to the Illinois Vehicle Code that prohibits writing, sending, or receiving text messages while driving. The law makes texting exceptions for drivers who pull over to text or shift their car into park or neutral to message while stopped in traffic. Fines start at $75. The law takes effect January 1, 2010.

Several U.S. senators also are pushing for a federal ban, as several fatal accidents involving drivers who were texting have made national news in the last year. Last September, a California commuter train engineer missed a stop signal while trading text messages with a friend, leading to a collision with a freight train that killed 25 people, according to federal investigators. In May, a mass-transit accident in Boston injured 62 people. The operator of a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority trolley later was charged with gross negligence after admitting he had been texting seconds before the collision with another trolley, according to a National Transportation Safety Board official.

Nearly a year after California outlawed talking on a handheld phone while driving, law enforcement statistics suggest motorists are having a hard time complying, so laws and the threat of fines and imprisonment may not be getting through to many drivers.

Some say lawmakers should not be so quick to enact texting-while-driving bans. They “are setting policy more on the basis of tragic anecdotes than on hard data,” an opinion piece on the USAToday blog argued. “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration failed to publicly release statistics in 2003 that could have been a starting point.” The report “blamed 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents on drivers using cell phones in 2002. Since then, 100 million more Americans have begun using cell phones, and far more than the 6 percent of drivers the study assumed are using them. Drivers have a variety of in-car distractions: Talkative adults, unruly kids, navigation systems, Big Macs, and Big Gulps. Where do you draw the line?”

Should there be a federal ban on texting while driving? Should all cell phone use behind the wheel be banned? Why do you think drivers ignore the texting bans? What other driver distractions are potentially dangerous? Will more laws really convince people to stop the habit? How often do you observe drivers not keeping their eyes on the road? How hard will it be for you to curb your own habit of texting while driving?

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