Miscellaneous Ramblings

Texting Kills: Cell Phone Use Impairs Drivers More than Alcohol

Charles Moore - 2009.07.27 - Tip Jar

For someone who derives part of his living from writing about smartphones, I'm paradoxically something of a cellphone curmudgeon - indeed, a just plain telephone curmudgeon. I appreciate the utilitarian value of telephony and related technologies, but I strenuously resist the premise that being reachable by phone 24/7 wherever one might happen to be is a good or desirable thing.

100 years ago acerbic lexicographer and self-styled cynic Ambrose Bierce dismissed the telephone as "an invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance." That was before long-distance telephone was a practical reality.

Personally, there are times that I prefer not to be disturbed by agreeable people, and I frequently leave my landline phone off the hook. I much prefer email, which allows one to respond within one's own time management priorities.

Bierce disappeared in Mexico in 1913, so I can only imagine with considerable relish what he might have had to say about telemarketing, let alone cellphones and what they've wreaked on our culture - people in restaurants, movie theaters, business meetings, classrooms, or virtually any other social situation disturbing others, or half (at best) concentrating on the conversation while checking or sending text messages, tweeting, checking and updating their Facebook page, and the whole constant communication obsession that's called social networking, but is ironically more the death of civilized sociality.

Mobile Phones at School

Last year, when Ontario's education minister Kathleen Wynne declared that students should not be allowed to use their phones in class, my first reaction was an incredulous "you mean they are currently permitted to use them in class?"

Aside from the increasingly eclectic array of distractions from activities that should be going on in class, cellphones open up a whole new dimension of potential for cheating - Internet access, comparing notes with other students, storage and retrieval of cribsheet data - so why is the issue of banning active cellphones in the classroom even controversial? There is absolutely no constructive educational rationale for allowing active cellphone use or text messaging, let alone cellphone cameras, in school classrooms.

Since so many students pack them these days (yet another technological "necessity" that didn't exist 20 years ago), the logistics of banning the phones' physical presence would probably be impractical, but there should be zero tolerance, on pain of confiscation, for having them turned on in class, with the parent required to visit the school to retrieve confiscated devices. Another possible measure would be an automatic two-grade mark deduction if found with a cellphone turned on during a test.

Beleaguered teachers have more than enough to contend with in this era where order, discipline, and respect have fallen by the wayside without the added distraction of wireless communications and surreptitious spycams adding to the chaos.

Technology in Its Place

I'm obviously not a technology Luddite, making the bulk of my living working with and writing about computers, but I refuse to become a tunnel-vision cheerleader for a laissez-faire takeover of our lives by technology, and cellphones, while an excellent technology when used responsibly with moderation and restraint, have vast potential for abuse.

Faced with falling attendance partly due to boorish patrons keeping cellphones turned on at the movies, the National Association of Theater Owners is considering asking federal authorities for permission to jam cellphone reception in an attempt to stop annoying rings and phone conversations during films. Cellphone jamming is currently illegal in both the US and Canada. Pity.

However, new technologies under development - like a paint that can switch between blocking and allowing cellular communication by means of a radio-filtering device that collects phone signals from outside a shielded space, allowing certain transmissions to proceed while blocking others - could help persuade regulatory authorities to change their minds, and that solution might be made to work in classrooms as well as cinemas.

A Safety Hazard

The mobile device related distempers discussed in the foregoing are annoying antisocial phenomena representing a devolution of civilized manners, but there's another aspect of communication obsession that is a serious public safety hazard. In a study of 5,600 students conducted by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm Insurance, 89% reported seeing teen drivers chatting on cellphones - an unsafe activity not limited to teens. Insurance industry studies show that drivers in general are four times more likely to be involved in collisions while talking on cellphones.

Given actuarial data like that, why isn't cellphone use by drivers in transit not universally banned?

Partly, I suppose, because while a recent survey found that 89% of Canadians think too many motorists are driving while are distracted by cellphones, et al., only 60% said they were willing to stop using cellphones when driving.

The New York Times' Matt Richtel reported last week that six years ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) "covered up hundreds of pages of research and warnings" about driver distraction due to cellphone because, the Times asserts, "of concerns about angering Congress."

...handsfree devices are no solution and may actually make things worse....

Suppressed data included estimates that cell-phone-related driver distraction had contributed to 955 fatalities and 240,000 motor vehicle accidents in 2002 alone, warning that handsfree devices are no solution and may actually make things worse by nurturing a false sense of less risk from distraction.

The NYT report says that then NHTSA boss Dr. Jeffrey Runge reluctantly agreed not to publish the information or the policy recommendation due to "larger political considerations," i.e.: risk of angering voters who like to use cellphones while driving, as well as alienating the cellphone industry, after being told disclosure could jeopardize billions of dollars of its financing if Congress perceived the agency had crossed the line into lobbying.

The unreleased research findings reportedly included that at any given moment, more than 1 million US drivers are talking on handheld cell phones, and a 2008 survey by Nationwide Insurance found that 67% of people admitted to using a cell phone while driving.

More Dangerous Than Drunk Driving

Driving while intoxicated has become so much of a social taboo that most people recognize the acronym DUI (Driving Under the Influence) used by police and prosecutors, but according to a growing body of research and empirical observation, DWY and DWT are a potentially worse public hazard than DUI - and should be just as socially unacceptable.

DWY and DWT? That would be Driving While Yakking and Driving While Texting (subcategory: Driving While Tweeting) - the most pernicious consequences of pandemic addiction to what amounts to digital crack. John Ratey, a Harvard psychiatry professor specializing in the science of attention, told Richtel that using digital devices gives you "a dopamine squirt."

According to a UK Transport Research Laboratory study commissioned by the Royal Automobile Club Foundation, motorists sending text messages while driving are "significantly more impaired" than ones who drive drunk. The study showed texters' reaction times deteriorated by 35%, with a whopping 91% decrease in steering ability, while similar studies of drunk driving indicate reaction time diminishment of a relatively modest 12%. By that measure, DWT is three times as dangerous as DUI and should logically be treated as severely, if not more so, both under the law and in terms of social censure.

Another study conducted by the Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia, presented to the Pediatric Academic Societies in May, found teens using a driving simulator while sending text messages or searching iPod menus changed speed, steered erratically, in, some cases, ran over pedestrians, showing these behaviors clearly pose a danger to drivers and others around them. Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among people between 16 and 20, the most prolific texting demographic, with teenage drivers four times more likely to crash than older drivers even when not texting.

Update: "A driver is 23 times more likely to get into a car accident if they text when they are behind the wheel of their vehicle, according to research conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI)," according to a news release dated 2009.07.28. Drivers are also 6x more likely to crash while dialing their mobile phones.

Raising Awareness

it appears that a major public education and consciousness-raising effort is in order. While drinking and driving is now pretty comprehensively considered inappropriate and intolerable, texting while driving is not, with an apparent disconnect between public conviction and behavior. Reuters reported that while 83% of respondents in a nationwide US survey said DWT should be illegal, one-quarter of US cellphone users admit to texting while driving. Ongoing surveys by the NHTSA show 85% of all auto crashes and 65% of all near-crashes result from distracted driving.

Laws banning texting behind the wheel are relatively rare as yet. Only a handful of US states have full or partial bans in place. In Canada, Nova Scotia (my home province) and Newfoundland have banned use of handheld cellphones (which would include texting) behind the wheel, and British Columbia is considering such a ban.

However, while research data cited indicate that enacting laws making cellphone use while driving illegal is just as important as our now ubiquitous penalties for driving drunk, passing laws against vehicular texting may not in itself be enough. A study conducted this year by mobile technology firm Vingo found some of the worst DWT offenders living in states where DWT is already banned or ban legislation is pending. In Tennessee, an alarming 42% of drivers surveyed admitted to indulging, compared with a slightly less horrific 26% of cellphone users nationwide. Vingo found 66% of drivers aged 16 to 19 - already the least experienced and most crash-prone cohort - admitted to driving while texting, and despite more states enacting bans and increased public awareness of high-profile DWT-related accidents, people still drive while texting at the same rate as a year ago.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, automobile accidents are now the leading cause of death in women under the age of 35 - another cellphone-prolific, texting-oriented demographic.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has determined that using cellphones, even handsfree units (which are still legal here on in Nova Scotia) in voice mode, increases crash risk fourfold, and texting - which distracts visually, physically, and cognitively - increases risk sixfold. The US National Safety Council advocates banning all cellphone use by automobile operators, advising that the prudent course is to turn the ringer off and stash the phone somewhere out of reach before turning the ignition key.

Parents also need to get on the case. A survey by SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and Liberty Mutual Insurance Group found 52% of teens who say their parents would be unlikely to punish them for driving while text-messaging said they would continue doing so, compared with 36% who believe their parents would penalize them.

The texting plague's calamitous consequences transcend the operation of automobiles. Text messaging was also identified as causing of two recent public transit disasters - a train crash in Los Angeles that killed 25 people, and a 24-year-old subway operator in Boston admitting he'd been texting his girlfriend when he rammed his train into one ahead of him, injuring almost 50 people.

This is madness. Just stop it, folks. There's no excuse.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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