Texting while driving sends ominous message: It’s dangerous

No one questions that texting while driving is a dangerous habit. Yet legislation banning this practice in several states — including Georgia — might not be enough to curb a practice that a recent report suggests is largely responsible for 16,000 U.S. deaths.

Brandee Wilder sends texts messages before leaving her home on Friday, Oct 8, 2010. She is still trying to break her texting problem. The 28-year-old wardrobe stylist from Atlanta said she texts and e-mails inside her car throughout the day.
Some highway safety experts have this message for lawmakers: Texting bans designed to protect people could have the opposite effect.

The increase in fatalities, as reported by an American Journal of Public Health study, might be caused by drivers ignoring the laws and attempting to hide their texting and becoming more distracted than before, the Highway Loss Data Institute said.

“We research what works and what doesn’t in highway safety,” said Russ Rader, HLDI spokesman. “The essential measure of these laws is are they making the roads safer and reducing crashes, and, by that measure, the laws are not working.”

Typical of this texting-while-driving dilemma is Brandee Wilder, 28, a wardrobe stylist from Atlanta. She still texts and e-mails while motoring daily through the city.

“My best friend is always fussing at me if she’s in the car,” Wilder said of the preventive attempts. “She will even snatch my phone.”

Georgia’s July 1 ban on texting while driving, making it one of 30 states to pass such a law, wasn’t enough to make Wilder quit this habit. However, the recent disclosure over texting-related traffic deaths got her attention.

“I had no idea that the number of fatalities was so great,” Wilder said. “Thinking that could never happen to me is probably the way a lot of those accidents were caused. I’m going to really try harder to curb my texting and stop completely.”

Distracted driving, defined as everything from texting to chatting on the phone to fiddling with a GPS navigation system, spiked significantly during the past decade, the American Journal of Public Health study showed. After declining from 1999 to 2005, deaths related to distracted driving increased 28 percent nationally, rising from 4,572 in 2005 to 5,870 in 2008.

Researcher Fernando Wilson, a public health professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, said that most of those aforementioned 16,000 deaths, which were estimated between 2001 and 2007, could have been prevented if not for distracted driving — which is primarily text messaging.

An HLDI study, funded by the insurance agency, examined crash data in California, Louisiana, Minnesota and Washington before and after texting bans were enforced in those states. The study reported an increase in insurance claims filed under collision coverage for three of the four, concluding the new laws might be responsible.

Wilson said texting bans are ineffective without severe consequences, making the HLDI finding plausible, and states might be forced to consider tougher laws.

“It comes down to enforcement,” Wilson said. “If it’s extremely rare you’re going to be caught and penalized, that is not an effective deterrent on behavior. I believe one or two states have serious penalties. They could charge you with murder in Utah.”

Georgia State Patrol has issued roughly three dozen citations since the law was enacted last summer, said Gordy Wright, GSP spokesman. The traffic fine is $150 and one point on the driver’s license.

The law is only the first step in changing texting behavior, said University of Georgia professor Carol Cotton, director of the Traffic Safety Research and Evaluation Group within the College of Public Health. Safety concerns, more than a fear of traffic penalties, eventually could do for a texting ban what was done for seat-belt use.

UGA research indicates it could take three to seven years for a law to alter habits, Cotton said.

“It generally takes a little while,” the UGA educator said. “It may not be that the law is the deterrent. The issue with the deterrent theory is that people have to be sure that when they do whatever they aren’t supposed to do, they could be caught and it will be severe. We haven’t reached that with texting.”

Another solution is technology. Mobile phone providers are developing and testing ways to prohibit texting or using a mobile phone when a car reaches a certain speed. The problem is finding a way to apply this to only a driver’s phone, and not a passenger’s phone.

Posted October 11, 2010.