States Look to Curb Text Messaging Drivers; Could GPS Users Be Next?

By | January 27, 2008

Text messaging is all the rage. Hopefully, not a road rage.

An increasing number of state lawmakers are concerned by the rash of accidents caused by text-happy drivers. Although many states already have laws that require cell phone-users to wear a headset while driving, states’ attempts to ban text messaging while driving is a new trend.

Last May, Washington became the first state to ban texting while driving, followed soon after by New Jersey and Utah. In those states, as well as D.C., Conn., Calif. and N.Y., it’s also illegal to talk on a cell phone without a headset while driving.

Other states are looking to ban the practice, too. At least five states — Va., Mass., R.I., Ohio and Pa. — have pending bills that would ban texting while driving. Maryland is expected to get its own bill soon.

News reports are rife with tales of roadway fatalities attributed directly to DWT, or driving while texting. Two years ago, a 63-year-old Colorado man was killed when a text-messaging 17-year-old crashed his car into the older man’s bicycle. Last month, in Massachusetts, a 13-year-old was killed after a car driven by a text-messaging man struck him.

It’s a common practice, according to industry survey. In a survey last January, Nationwide Insurance found that nearly one in five drivers admitted to text messaging while driving. While no studies have been conducted specifically on the dangers of texting while driving, critics contend that because texting requires even more concentration, the distractions are at least the same, if not greater than those posed by normal cell phone use.

A 2006 study from researchers at the University of Utah found that talking on a cell phone while driving is as dangerous as driving drunk — even if the phone is a hands-free model. An earlier study found that drivers who use hands-free cell phones were 18 percent slower in braking and took 17 percent longer to regain the speed they lost when they braked.

Text messaging is particularly popular among teen drivers, a high risk group in the eyes of insurers even when they’re not distracted. A survey by the American Automobile Association published in Seventeen magazine last August showed that 61 percent of teens admit to risky driving habits. Of that 61 percent, 46 percent say that they text message when driving and 51 percent talk on cell phones while driving.

“Teens love to text, talk on their cell phones and hang out with their friends,” said Seventeen Editor-in-Chief Ann Shoket. “But when you mix those social activities with young, inexperienced drivers, the results are dangerous and in many cases fatal.”

Phone Usage Policies

The potential for liability from cell phones on the road has businesses scared, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Although there have been only a few high profile cases of employers being sued for accidents caused by employees talking on cell phones, many companies have established cell phone usage policies to restrict employees from conducting business over the cell phone while driving. Some companies have outright banned the use of all wireless devices.

The popularity of a new generation of text-easy devices like the BlackBerry or iPhone — more than 20 million of which have been sold — means texting or e-mailing while driving promises to be a bigger concern for employers in the future.

Even the wireless industry acknowledges the dangers. Joe Farren, spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Association, told the Washington Post that his organization does not oppose the pending ban in Virginia. “We don’t think anyone should text message while driving,” he said. “We don’t have a problem with that.”

Dangerous Directions

The dangers of text messaging are well-documented. But there’s another technology increasingly common in cars that may soon draw the attention of legislatures and lawyers: Global Positioning Systems (GPS).

A 2006 study by U.K.-based Privilege Insurance found that 10 percent of users of these satellite navigation system waited until they were already driving to program them. More than half of those who did so admitted that meant taking their eyes off of the road. Three out of four drivers who used some form of navigational equipment while driving spent up to 10 seconds doing so.

Ian Parker, managing director of Privilege Insurance, said “navigation equipment can be a major distraction while driving. Our research shows even satellite navigation equipment, if used incorrectly, can lead to driver danger.”

The danger of GPS may not just be from distracted drivers.

Earlier this month, a California man vacationing in New York said he was wrongly led down a railroad track by the GPS unit installed in his rental car. The result: a fiery crash with a Metro-north train that destroyed the car and 200 feet of track, and stranded 500 passengers for several hours, according to a report in the Journal News.

The driver was held liable for the damage. More of these incidents could be on the way given that the devices have become more popular. Amazon.com said that if all of the GPS units it sold this holiday were lined up, they would make a trail from New York to Philadelphia.

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