Nicholas Sparks didn’t plan to go swimming on a recent Wednesday morning. But sheriff’s deputies in Niagara County, N.Y., say Sparks found himself — and his tow truck — in a backyard pool July 29 after he rear-ended a car and screeched off the road at high speed.
Sparks, 25, of Burt, N.Y., is charged with reckless driving, talking on a cell phone and following too closely in the incident, which left the 68-year-old woman whose car he allegedly hit briefly hospitalized with head injuries and slightly injured his 8-year-old grandniece, who was with him in the truck.
As it happens, deputies say, Sparks was using two cell phones at the same time — talking on one and sending text messages on the other. But he faces charges only for talking, because while it’s illegal to talk on a cell phone while driving in New York, it won’t explicitly be illegal to send text messages on one until Nov. 1, when a law passed last week takes effect.
Numerous localities have text-driving bans, some limited to novice drivers or vehicles passing through school zones. But the practice is prohibited for all drivers statewide in only 10 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, an organization of state highway officials that endorsed nationwide prohibitions this week.
Momentum is gathering to stamp out the practice, however. By January, New York and eight other states will have joined the list when laws awaiting enactment go into effect.
Utah’s legislature has taken one of the toughest stances, passing a law that imposes a penalty of up to 15 years in prison on texting drivers who cause an accident that kills someone.
Risk research only now emerging
It might seem obvious that using a cell phone would be a distraction for a driver, but only recently has a large body of research emerged to demonstrate it. There is even less research examining the specific risk of typing out text messages.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that in 2002 that a quarter-million accidents and 955 deaths could be attributed to drivers’ use of cell phones, either texting or talking. That research was finally obtained by safety activists last month under the Freedom of Information Act — after it had sat on the shelf for years , The New York Times reported, because of concerns that publishing it might appear to be an act of political lobbying.
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That study, by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, concluded that the risk of an accident was four times greater for a driver typing out a text message than for a driver dialing a cell phone — and more than 23 times greater than for a driver who wasn’t distracted by a phone at all.
“This cellphone task has the potential to create a true crash epidemic if texting-type tasks continue to grow in popularity and the generation of frequent text message senders reach driving age in large numbers,” the report warned.
Numbers like that are lending support to safety experts and activists who, until recently, could only point to smaller studies and the vivid retelling of horrific texting-related accidents to make their case, like the crash in Ontario County, N.Y., that killed five high school classmates less than a week after they graduated in June 2007.
“This is a huge problem in America,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has scheduled a “summit” later this month to study texting and other activities that distract drivers. “If it were up to me, I would ban drivers from texting immediately.”
Fifth of drivers text behind the wheel
Lahood can’t do that, however. The U.S. Senate is considering legislation that would withhold federal highway funds from states that don’t ban text-driving, but that would still leave the final decision up to local and state legislators. And they’re the ones who hear from constituents who oppose a ban.
Some disagree with the idea itself, like Brad McCarter, 19, a student at the University of Missouri in Columbia, who said Missouri’s new law against texting by drivers under 21 was hypocritical.
“Oh, it’s dangerous,” McCarter said of text-driving. “But so is doing your makeup or fishing around in your glove compartment or console.”
Peter Kissinger, chief executive of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, said that was a common attitude, especially among younger drivers who grew up with thumbs blazing across mobile phone keyboards.
In a survey by the foundation in April, 21 percent of respondents admitted having used their cell phones to send or read a text message while behind the wheel in the previous month, even as 87 percent listed text-driving as a “very serious threat” — second only to drunken driving and far ahead of other hazards like aggressive driving and speeding.
Overall, 95 percent said they thought messaging while driving was “unacceptable,” but even 18 percent of those drivers said they had done it recently. Rolayne Fairclough, a spokeswoman for AAA of Utah, said that showed a big “disconnect” between “what people know is dangerous and what they actually do.”
Kissinger put it more simply: “That’s outrageous to me.”
For law enforcement, a frustrating dilemma
A separate impediment to widespread bans has been the concern of law enforcement officers, many of whom say they are all but impossible to enforce.
Many states allow drivers to talk on a cell phone as long as they are using headphones or wireless headsets, so it’s not enough for an officer simply to see a driver holding a phone. He or she has to have some way to know that the driver was reading or writing a text, as opposed to using the phone for an allowable reason, like following driving directions, a service commonly available on modern handsets.
“One of the difficulties of enforcing this is being able to determine whether that person is texting or dialing a number,” said Don Baird, a lieutenant with the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
What that means, said Tim McCool, a trooper with the Kansas Highway Patrol, is that “we are going to have to see somebody” actually texting. The problem, McCool said, is that “when somebody is texting, they are not holding the phone up to their face.”
And Bill Kennedy, owner of the Topeka Driving School in Topeka, Kan., said that drivers are getting savvy to laws that regulate their text habits. Accordingly, he said, “They are just going to dip it down below the dashboard” and text out of sight.
Nicole Liberatore, a young driver in Knoxville, Tenn., said she didn’t think law enforcement could really stop drivers who wanted to text.
“How can they prove that you’re sending a text or dialing a number?” Liberatore asked. “All you have to do is hit the ‘end’ key and it will be gone by the time they pull you over.”
Enforcement: Enough bang for the buck?
Actually, advocates said, it is possible to prove that a driver was texting even if officers never saw it. But it’s a laborious process, involving obtaining a subpoena for the driver’s cell phone records to pinpoint the time a message was sent or received.
Because penalties in most jurisdictions are relatively small — for example, the texting teenager who killed Charles Stoecker, 61, in a crash in White Hall, Md., in November 2007 was punished with a $410 fine — law enforcement agencies usually choose not to go through all that trouble.
Then there is the fact that in some states, texting is only what’s called a “secondary infraction,” meaning an officer can’t pull you over unless he or she spots you doing something else the law considers more dangerous, like not wearing a seat belt.
That means officers have to “take some time to converse with that person,” said Jessie Haden, a police officer in Columbia, Mo. Determining whether the driver was texting is a matter of honesty, Haden said — “we ask what was going on and see what we get for an answer.”
The enforcement difficulties were why the Governors Highway Safety Association opposed texting bans until this week. But in the past year, said Vernon F. Betkey, the group’s chairman, attention to the problem has risen so sharply that the group decided that coordinated, widespread bans could finally have a deterrent effect.
While it still has concerns about enforcement, the GHSA switched sides this week because its members believe that “if every state passes a texting ban, it will send a message to the public that this dangerous practice is unacceptable,” Betkey said.
“We want to send the strongest message possible about texting behind the wheel,” he said. “It is dangerous and should not be tolerated.”
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