by ZACHARY BUCKHANNON
Distracted driving, especially among teenagers, is a hot topic in law enforcement and the car insurance industry. But recent research indicates it’s not just young drivers who are not paying attention to the road.
All drivers deal with distractions; tuning the radio, eating, talking with passengers, having a cell phone conversation. According to a recent State Farm Insurance survey, the number of Americans driving while distracted increased from 13 percent in 2009 to 21 percent in 2012. The data also indicates that U.S. drivers are increasingly texting and surfing the web while driving.
A 2011 Texas Transportation Institute study report shows that sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes off of the road for an average of 4.6 seconds. That is the equivalent, the report said, of driving 55 mph down the length of a football field while blindfolded.
The researchers also said that the study findings extend to other driving distractions such as checking e-mail or Facebook.
The popularity of mobile technology such as smartphones brought several benefits to users. But the increase of mobile technology has also brought with it increased risks for all drivers, not just those using the devices.
At distraction.gov, a website developed by the U.S. Department of Transportation, data shows that distracted driving contributes to almost 20 percent of all fatal crashes, with cell phones constituting the primary source of distraction.
Two numbers illustrate the magnitude of the problem: an estimated five billion text messages are sent each day in the United States, and at least 20 percent of all drivers admit to texting while driving.
In its report, a State Farm spokesperson said, “Approximately half of young adults are webbing, with some frequency, while driving.”
Out of 60 Lehman High School students who drive, 47 admitted they surf or text while driving.
“It’s not that I think that I can drive while texting, but since looking down at a small screen so fast is not that time consuming, it is not much of a distraction,” said Nathan Castro, a junior.
The distraction.gov data also shows that 11 percent of all teenage accidents are caused by distracted driving. Data from that website also shows that a distracted driver poses 23 times more of a risk than one who is not.
In 2010, more than 3,000 people living in the United States were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver.
But the State Farm report also shows that teens are not the only distracted drivers.
David Beigie, vice president of public affairs from State Farm, said, “While the focus has been on young people, the data also indicates that motorists of all ages are increasing their use of the mobile web while driving.”
Nearly three quarters of study participants in the State Farm research said the answer to the distracted driving problem is to have laws prohibiting using a mobile device while driving. They also said those laws need to be enforced.
Texas is one of 11 states that do not have a statewide law prohibiting texting while driving. There are two restrictions for drivers under the age of 18 and for bus drivers: using cell phones while operating a vehicle and using hand held phones in school zones.
However, 25 Texas cities including Austin and San Antonio have passed local laws against texting while driving within city limits.
That may be about to change across the state.
Six Texas lawmakers have filed bills this legislative session banning the use of cellular and other mobile devices while driving.
One of those bills, SB 28, also known as the Alex Brown Memorial Act, was introduced by Texas State Senator Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo). This bill would create an offense for use of a handheld wireless communication device for text-based communication – including an instant message, email or other electronic message – while operating a motor vehicle. It would be an offense to use a handheld wireless device to read, write or send such a message while driving unless the vehicle is stopped.
Alex Brown, the namesake of SB 28, was a high school student from Wellman, Texas, who died while texting and driving in 2010. She was driving above the speed limit, not wearing a seat belt and texting on her way to school. Her parents spoke to students at Hays High School and Dripping Springs High School in 2011 about the dangers of texting and driving.
Another bill, HB 63, also known as the “Alex Brown Memorial Act” recently cleared its first major legislative hurdle. Rep. Tom Craddick announced the House Transportation Committee voted in favor of HB 63. The legislation will now go to the calendars committee to be considered for full floor debate.
If passed, HB 63 would amend the Texas Transportation code to ban the “use of a wireless communication device to read, write or send a text-based communication while driving, except when a vehicle is stopped.”
“I am elated that the ban on texting while driving bill has been reported favorably by the committee and is one step closer to increasing public safety of our Texas roadways,” Rep. Craddick said.
If HB 63 passes it will take effect September 1, 2013.
In 2011, a similar measure by Craddick passed in both the House and Senate but fell victim to Gov. Rick Perry’s veto pen. There’s no indication the law will earn the governor’s support this time around, either.
In February, a Perry spokesperson said, “Gov. Perry continues to believe texting while driving is reckless and irresponsible, and as he noted last session, current law already prohibits drivers under the age of 18 from texting or using a cell phone while driving. The key to dissuading drivers from texting while driving is information and education, not government micromanagement.”
Whether legislated or not, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood may have summed it up best with this advice, “The safest way to get from one place to another is to hang up and drive.”
*Editor’s note: Clint Younts is an occasional columnist for the Hays Free Press.
Kim Hilsenbeck contributed to this story.
- Hang up and drive! 02/11/2009
- Study says aggressive driving, texting on the rise 12/3/2010
- Somber anniversary reinforces importance of traffic laws 01/3/2013