COLUMBIA — Stand at the corner of any busy intersection in Columbia and watch the drivers. You’ll see that texting on cell phones is driving us to distraction.
The problem has lawmakers racing to pass legislation faster than teens typing on a keypad.
Missouri Rep. Joe Smith, R.-St. Charles, pre-filed a bill earlier this month that would create the state’s first restrictions on cell phone use while driving, unless the phone is equipped with a hands-free device.
The bill would ban cell phone use in a motor vehicle on public property. It would apply to all publicly maintained roads, streets and highways.
The bill, which Smith said he has introduced the past three years in a row, includes a ban on text messaging behind the wheel. If passed, it would take effect in August.
According to research by a British transportation agency, texting is more dangerous than simply talking on the phone in a car. It is even more hazardous than drinking and driving.
The Missourian conducted an informal study of texting and driving at the intersection of Providence Road and Locust Street* from 4 to 5 p.m. on three consecutive Mondays.
An average of 46 drivers could be seen texting during an hour when about 900 cars passed through the intersection. Texters included pizza deliverymen, drivers with children in their cars and a truck driver for Target.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol doesn’t provide statistics on accidents caused by cell phone use, but Smith said he knows these accidents have occurred.
Looking away from the wheel while texting is an obvious driving danger, said Sgt. Shelley Jones, head of the traffic unit for the Columbia Police Department. But it’s hard to determine if texting has contributed to any accidents. Asking drivers isn’t always effective because “people lie,” Jones said.
Jones said she has observed drivers distracted by cell phone use. “Text messaging is more of a danger than talking (on the phone), and some people even take both hands off the wheel,” she said.
While restrictions on cell phone use in cars have been proposed or enacted in 40 states, many states are still deciding how to incorporate texting into pieces of legislation.
In May 2007, Washington became the first state to ban texting and driving, and six others have followed, including California, where a train engineer’s inattention to a signal while texting was cited in the crash of a commuter train that killed 25.
This fall, the Transport Research Laboratory, based in the U.K., conducted an in-depth study of text messaging while driving for the Royal Automobile Club Foundation, a research branch of the Royal Automobile Club. Participants between the ages of 17 to 25 were tested on reaction times, car-following ability, lane control and driver speed using a standard cell phone keypad.
The research determined that:
- Reaction times were 35 percent slower when writing a text message, which is slower than the alcohol consumption reaction time of 12 percent.
- The increased stopping distance of a distracted texter over one mile is 12.5 meters, which is about three car lengths.
- Lane control is also severely impaired.
According to the study, participants said they believe texting should be illegal and that it definitely impacts their driving.
Jamie Arndt, an MU social psychology professor, cites two reasons people engage in behavior they know is dangerous.
First, there’s the attitude of "it won’t happen to me,” he said. “They think the danger and accidents will happen, but they themselves are immune.”
Priorities also affect decision making, particularly when connecting with friends and family may be a top concern.
“Those are powerful things that take priority of assessing proper risk management,” he said.
Sabeena Khosla, a junior at MU, admits she texts regularly while behind the wheel — probably two or three times every time she drives. But if she needs to have a conversation, she’ll call.
She says she knows texting is distracting.
“I’ve been surprised when I’m texting and focusing on the message, and I look up and realize I haven’t been paying attention and could have missed something,” she said.
That’s the trouble, said Smith, who sponsored the Missouri bill to restrict cell phone use.
“When on the phone, people switch lanes without looking and are more distracted than they should be," he said. “My main motivation behind the bill is the safety of individuals behind the wheel, protecting people.”