'Driving while texting'

The Baltimore Sun

For Alan Hyman, driving while sending and receiving e-mail on his cell phone is no big deal. At 47, this commercial driver and licensed pilot figures he has the ability to exchange electronic messages while operating a vehicle.

"It's a skill. You've got to glance down, you've got to look up," the Dulaney Valley resident said. "It's all skills and training."

He says he's never had an accident, not even a close call, while text messaging. What concerns him is all those other people out there text messaging on the road.

"You see people weaving all the time," Hyman said. "You look over and he's busy doing something. Usually, he's dialing his cell phone and he's driving off the road."

Hyman is among the one in five U.S. drivers between the ages of 18 and 60 who practices what is known as "driving while texting," according to a survey by Nationwide Mutual Insurance.

The percentage swells among younger drivers, with 37 percent of those ages 18 to 27 saying they swap messages while on the road, the survey found. The figure drops to 17 percent among drivers 28 to 44. Only 2 percent of those 45 to 60 admitted to the practice.

Reports of accidents in which text messaging was a factor have prompted legislatures in several states, including Washington, Arizona, New Jersey and Connecticut, to consider bans on driving while texting.

The issue has come up in Maryland only in the context of a broader cell-phone ban, which the General Assembly has rejected.

Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said texting while driving is a particular concern for parents of teenagers.

"They just text message constantly," she said. "They're accustomed to being in constant communication with one another."

This culture of constant connection has contributed to a generally high level of distracted driving - already elevated by the pervasive chatter of drivers on cell phones.

"Text messaging actually takes a higher level of consciousness than it does to simply be talking on a cell phone," said Washington Rep. Joyce McDonald, a Republican who sponsored legislation that has cleared her state's House of Representatives. "It takes more concentration to compose, edit, type and send a message on a BlackBerry or a cell phone than it does to have a conversation while you are driving with both hands on the wheel. Text messaging takes your eyes off the road every time you punch into your BlackBerry or cell phone."

McDonald noted a December accident near Seattle in which the inattention of a 53-year-old driver using a BlackBerry led to a five-car pileup on an interstate highway.

That crash was one of a growing number attributed to driving while texting.

In 2005, Lucas Rolin, 26, was killed when he lost control of his pickup truck while apparently typing a text message into his cell phone near Athens, Tenn.

In Colorado, an 18-year-old high school senior, Patrick Sims, was sentenced to 10 days in jail after he ran into and killed a 63-year-old bicyclist while exchanging text messages with a friend.

And in California, Eric Kenneth Dungan - on trial in the death of a police officer he ran over with his pickup truck - told the court he was text messaging a female friend just before the impact. Dungan, 26, was convicted of second-degree murder and gross vehicular murder while intoxicated.

So far, Maryland appears to have been spared such high-profile incidents involving driving while texting. Sgt. Russ Newell, a state police spokesman, said he spoke to several veteran troopers and that none reported incidents of drivers being distracted by text messaging.

"There is no increase from our law enforcement standpoint," he said.

In the United States, research into driver distraction has largely focused on talking on cell phones, but overseas research suggests that texting poses an even greater hazard.

In Australia, a university study found that young motorists who sent text messages while driving spent about 12 out of every 30 seconds with their eyes off the road.

The issue of driving while texting has been prominent in that country's news. In 2005, a bus driver carrying 60 students in Sydney was photographed by two of his passengers as he sent text messages while at the wheel. He was charged and fined under New South Wales law, which makes any use of a mobile phone while driving illegal.

Earlier that year, a Sydney transit bus driver crashed into a pole as closed-circuit television recorded him texting while driving.

Some U.S. states ban driver use of hand-held cell phones - for texting or voice calls. Such a proposal failed in Maryland's General Assembly this year - as in previous years.

Newell said further legislation might not be needed in Maryland. He said police could pull over a motorist who is obviously distracted by text messaging and issue a warning or citation for negligent driving - an offense that carries a $140 fine ($280 if it results in an accident).

Joe Fannen, spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Association, said the trade group - which opposes bans on cell phone use while driving - would not object to a prohibition on text messaging.

"We don't think people should be text messaging and driving, period," he said.

A study released last year by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that while the act of talking on a cell phone poses a statistically insignificant risk, the act of dialing while driving raises the danger of an accident or close call by almost three times.

Text messaging while driving is apparently a more recent phenomenon. Charlie Klauer, a senior researcher at the institute, said the previous study - for which the data was gathered from 2002 to 2003 - found too few instances to draw conclusions.

Cannard Edlin of McHenry in Garrett County said he began texting while driving about a year ago. The 54-year-old resort employee said he tries to be careful while sending and receiving message but admits that "it is a distraction sometimes."

With texting, Edlin said, the more messages you send, the more you receive.

"It just seems to grow," he said. "I've tried to cut back on it."

Edlin said he wouldn't object if lawmakers made the practice illegal and that if they did, he would try to comply.

But pointing to the difficulty of enforcing such a ban, the insurance institute's McCartt said laws alone are unlikely to solve the problem.

"In general, laws that can't be enforced in the long run don't achieve high levels of compliance," she said.

Hyman said his experience as a pilot has taught him that people can master multiple tasks while operating complicated machinery. He foresees a time when drivers will be rated at varying skill levels and when police will be able to determine electronically whether a driver is licensed to text message while behind the wheel.

"It boils down to how do you decide who's competent and who's not," he said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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