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Driving while distracted can be deadly

It’s suspected, but not known for sure yet, that that the engineer of a Los Angeles Metrolink commuter train may have been text messaging when the train ran a stop signal, crashing into an oncoming freight engine.

It’s suspected, but not known for sure yet, that that the engineer of a Los Angeles Metrolink commuter train may have been text messaging when the train ran a stop signal, crashing into an oncoming freight engine.

It will likely take the National Transportation Safety Board up to a year to investigate the tragedy, which resulted in 25 deaths, including that of the engineer himself, and 138 people injured.

If there was texting involved, it likely would not have been an approved activity. “Our operating rules prohibit employees operating the controls of a train from using cell phones or wireless electronic devices while on the job except in an emergency,” said Susan M. Terpay of Norfolk Southern Corp., which operates in more than 20 Eastern states. Calls made asking the same question of other rail lines were not returned yesterday.

No doubt, as soon as the texting possibility was raised, many of us thought about family members and friends who text with dexterity and with ease — and while driving a vehicle.

In the United States so far, five states have banned text-messaging while driving: Alaska, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey and Washington state, as well as the District of Columbia.

In 2007, Washington was the first state to pass such a ban. California is due to join the ranks soon. A state Senate bill banning texting and driving was approved in August, and is awaiting the governor’s signature.

Seven other states — New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Massachusetts, Nevada and Delaware, “have bills pending that would ban text messaging by all or specific segments of drivers,” said Russ Rader of the national Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

It seems like it should be obvious not to mix the two, which some call “DWD,” driving while distracted, a category that includes cell phone use, eating, and even changing the car’s radio station.

Yet there’s a human compunction to respond to a beep, a buzz or a ring going off from a nearby device, even if that device is in the car, and one’s hands are on the steering wheel.

“The prevalence of driving while distracted can be attributed to technology and our societal mindset to be available at all times,” said Nationwide Insurance earlier this year, after doing a survey about the problem.

“No one should do it — period,” said Joseph Farren of CTIA-The Wireless Association, about text messaging while driving.

Text messaging continues to set usage records, according to CTIA. The industry trade group said in June, there were 75 billion messages sent in the United States, a 160 percent increase over June 2007.

It’s not known how many of those messages were sent by a driver behind the wheel.

In general, text messaging is more of a habit for those in their teens, 20s and even 30s, who often prefer texting to talking on the phone.

A recent survey released by found that 48 percent of those polled between the ages of 18 and 24 acknowledged they have sent a text message, instant message or e-mail while driving.

In the 25- to 34-year-old age range, 27 percent said they have done so, as did 19 percent of those in the 35- to 44-year-old range.

The percentage continued to decrease as the age range increased, with 11 percent of those ages 45 to 54 saying they have sent text messages while driving, compared to 2 percent of those ages 55 to 62, and 1 percent of those age 65 and older. The legal information Web site surveyed 1,000 Americans by telephone.

The Nationwide Insurance survey of more than 1,500 drivers done earlier this year showed that “nearly 40 percent of teens and Gen Yers (identified as those between ages 18 to 30) … admit to texting while driving.”

The company noted doing both requires “additional visual, cognitive and manual attention.”

Eric Bolton, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration press officer, said the federal agency has not yet done specific research on texting and driving.

But NHTSA has done extensive research on “inattentive” and “distracted” driving, he said, which includes everything from drivers who eat while behind the wheel to those who turn and talk to passengers in the back seat.

One study, completed two years ago by the agency and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, used cameras inside and outside automobiles to monitor the behavior of drivers of 100 vehicles for more than a year.

“Nearly 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involved some form of driver inattention within 3 seconds before the event happened,” the joint study found. 

And while several states now have banned handheld cell phones while driving, Bolton said the agency does not “really see much difference between a handheld and hands-free use of cell phones” in the car in terms of paying attention.

“You can be as equally distracted” with either, he said. But, “clearly, if you’re dialing a telephone number or texting, you’re going to have your eyes off the road while you do that.”

Rader, of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, echoed those remarks.

“The research is indicating that both handheld and hands-free phoning carry the same crash risk,” he said. “We don't have research on the crash risk if drivers are texting, but it's likely worse. Texting takes your mind and your eyes off the road.”

Even with state bans on texting while driving, “the problem is enforcement. It's very difficult to change driver behavior,” Rader said.

“If drivers don't perceive a high likelihood of getting a ticket, they're unlikely to put down their phones.

“We're seeing this problem with existing laws. North Carolina, for example, has a ban on cell phone use and texting for teen drivers. However, we conducted an observational study last year and found that cell phone use actually went up slightly among teen drivers after the law took effect.

“Most teens said they knew about the law, but few thought it was being enforced vigorously,” he said. “Without tough, sustained enforcement, it's unlikely these laws will have much impact.”