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Driving while phone-toxicated

I am, as of this writing, 144 days away from never again being able to sleep soundly. That is when my 15-year-old daughter, as she delights in constantly reminding me, will receive her learner's permit. And every time she gets behind the wheel, I'll worry about the dangerous combination of teenage brain and 3,000-pound lethal weapon.

I'm not sure whether I should blame Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for adding to my anxiety or hug him for a timely lecture about the particular perils of distracted driving among teens -- behaviors such as chatting on cell phones, checking BlackBerry messages, and texting.

I'm leaning toward hug.

LaHood phoned me -- no, not in the car, although it is Bluetooth-enabled, and I confess to conducting interviews on the road -- in advance of the Transportation Department's second annual Distracted Driving Summit.

His message was chastening, for me as well as my daughter: "You can't drive safely with a cell phone in your ear or a BlackBerry in your hand. Put it in the glove compartment, because there's no call so important it can't wait."

The statistics about teens are frightening. The highest proportion of distracted drivers in fatal crashes were under the age of 20. One in four teens say they have texted while driving. Half of 12- to 17-year-olds say they've ridden with a texting driver. Half of cell-owning teens ages 16 to 17 -- are there any without? -- say they have talked on the phone while driving.

And here's why it's so dangerous: "Drivers who send and receive text messages take their eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds out of every 6 seconds while texting," according to the Transportation Department. "At 55 miles per hour, this means that the driver is traveling the length of an entire football field without looking at the road."

As to old-fashioned calls, "using a cell phone while driving, whether it's hand-held or hands-free, delays a driver's reactions as much as having a blood-alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent."

We need to do for cell phones and texting what we've accomplished for drunk driving and driving while unbuckled: make it unacceptable -- and against the law. Currently, 30 states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving, but only six states and the District prohibit all hand-held devices. The federal government should prod more states to follow suit, whether through carrots (incentive grants) or, if need be, sticks (threatening to withhold some transportation dollars.)

I'd also like to see more research into what really distracts drivers -- in part because I do love my Bluetooth, and in part because of the array of diverting new technologies. Tapping a button on my steering wheel to take a call does not seem anywhere near as distracting as, say, glancing at the GPS screen or fiddling with the radio. Indeed, the only accident I've ever had happened when I was leaning down to put in a compact disc.

But LaHood did convince me: There is not a stoplight exception to the texting-while-driving rule. "I guarantee you when you're looking at that message and the light turns green you don't see it turning green," he said. "Once the distraction starts, it's very tough to take your eyes off."

Point taken. We talked about distracted driving as I was driving my car pool (my daughter and two older teens) Thursday morning. And I managed to make it to the office without checking messages along the way.

By Ruth Marcus  | September 16, 2010; 4:34 PM ET
Categories:  Marcus  | Tags:  Ruth Marcus  
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Ray Lahood's valiant efforts, public safety organizations, and legislation all have value in raising public awareness in forums like this one but it will be difficult to solely legislate our way out of this issue. I just read that 72% of teens text daily - many text more 3000 times a month. New college students no longer have email addresses! They use texting and Facebook - even with their professors. This text and drive issue is in its infancy and its not going away.

I decided to do something about it after my three year old daughter was nearly run down right in front of me by a texting driver . Instead of a shackle that locks down phones and alienates the user (especially teens) I built a tool called OTTER that is a simple app for smartphones. Unlike the author of this article, my girls won't be driving for several years, but texting and driving has already effected our lives. I think if we can empower the individual then change will come to our highways now and not just our laws.

Erik Wood, owner

Posted by: ErikWood | September 16, 2010 7:57 PM | Report abuse

Teens are getting extremely bad examples from the many, many idiots I see on the DC Beltway every single day. I think slowdowns, especially, seem to trigger people into looking at their cells, making every slowdown even worse.

We need some kind of electronic 'cone of silence' around the driver's seat or a monstrous legal penalty, because I don't think people will do the right thing voluntarily.

Posted by: glenerian | September 17, 2010 7:34 AM | Report abuse

Gosh, I think it's sort of a shame that, as the writer suggests, the Gov't has to offer monetary appeasements to make sure these folks pay attention when driving on our streets and hiways. Not to sound factist, but simply make an activated device equal to an open alcoholic beverage; the issue was alluded to the same by LaHood, no?...

Posted by: giltemp1 | September 17, 2010 8:32 AM | Report abuse

...sorry, make that "facist"...

Posted by: giltemp1 | September 17, 2010 8:36 AM | Report abuse

...oh, forget it...

Posted by: giltemp1 | September 17, 2010 8:38 AM | Report abuse

My son is 15 and, like Ruth's daughter, eager to get his permit when he turns 16. I have made it clear to him that if I ever see or hear of him (I've got a pretty good network of friends who would alert me to reckless behavior) using his phone while driving, he will lose both his phone and his driving privileges. He knows I don't bluff, so I hope this "line in the sand" will help him make good choices.
I also model good behavior and don't use my phone myself when driving. A few years ago, I did use it occasionally and felt that my attention was divided, so I stopped. There are very few calls that need to be answered immediately, and driving is too important to be multi-tasking.
It amazes me the number of parents I see chatting on their phones, mini-vans full of kids, eyes and attention not on the road. I'd love to see the laws change to outlaw all phone use while driving, before more innocent people are killed by distracted drivers.

Posted by: karen2311 | September 17, 2010 8:46 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for writing this and informing people. Regarding your comment "I'd also like to see more research into what really distracts drivers" ... we wanted to learn more about this too, and while looking into the research about distraction of talking on cell phones while driving, we pulled much of that research together into a document about cognitive distraction which you and your readers of this article may be interested in:

Deb Trombley

Posted by: Deb_T | September 17, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

This is a great way to spread awareness of the dangers of distracted driving! Here is a link to a website that expands on promoting safety concerning teen drivers. It is filled with webisodes, PSAs, and even more concerning the subject!

Posted by: morganpaigelovesyousomuch | September 17, 2010 6:02 PM | Report abuse

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