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Cellphones and texting pose great risks behind the wheel

28 Jul 2009 | Posted by | 0 Comments | ,

Last week, the New York Times covered the news that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration decided in 2003 not to release preliminary data showing that talking on cellphones while driving — whether using a hands-free device or not — posed a safety risk nearly equivalent to drunk driving. Researchers at the NHTSA were pushing for a more extensive research program to follow their preliminary research, but due to what the Times cited as “political considerations,” not only was the extra study and research not ordered, but the existing findings were essentially buried.

The memos, research and draft letter to Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta were released to The Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen via a Freedom of Information request, who sent them to the Times.

The NHTSA officials were encouraged to stick to their mission of information-gathering and to avoid lobbying states to pass laws restricting cellphones in any way. But what good is information gathering when the results don’t leave the agency, much less find their way into the hands of lawmakers or state legislators?

The news in the Times‘ Driven to Distraction series only got worse yesterday.

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute is releasing a peer-reviewed report showing that truckers who text message while driving were 23 times more likely to crash. The study outfitted tractor-trailer drivers with cameras to study their behavior and found that “in the moments before a crash or near crash, drivers typically spent nearly five seconds looking at their devices — enough time at typical highway speeds to cover more than the length of a football field.”

Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech institute, one of the world’s largest vehicle safety research organizations, said the study’s message was clear.

“You should never do this,” he said of texting while driving. “It should be illegal.”

Most shocking perhaps was the closing story. If you happen to live near Windham, Maine, you might want to keep an eye out, though this sort of behavior is more common than one might think. According to a survey of 2,501 drivers in the story, “21 percent of drivers said they had recently texted or e-mailed while driving,”

“It’s convenient,” said Robert Smith, 22, a recent college graduate in Windham, Me., who says he regularly texts and drives even though he recognizes that it is a serious risk. He would rather text, he said, than take time on a phone call.

“I put the phone on top of the steering wheel and text with both thumbs,” he said, adding that he often has exchanges of 10 messages or more. Sometimes, “I’ll look up and realize there’s a car sitting there and swerve around it.”

Mr. Smith, who was not part of the AAA survey, said he was surprised by the findings in the new research about texting.

“I’m pretty sure that someday it’s going to come back to bite me,” he said of his behavior.