Campaigns and legislation target texting drivers

Tuesday, October 20, 2009 | 5:00 p.m. CDT; updated 10:24 a.m. CST, Thursday, February 18, 2010
Mallory Benedict, a junior at MU, stands with her new car near the site of her August 2007 car crash on Sept. 22, 2009. Benedict had been driving home from a friend's house on North Ballenger Lane near Mexico Gravel Road at 4 a.m. when she texted the friend for directions. While typing her message, Benedict overcorrected her steering three times, which led to her rolling and totaling her car. Although her airbags did not deploy, Benedict, who had worn her seat belt, was not injured.

Most mothers share baby pictures of their children. Maureen Benedict flashes photos of her daughter’s totaled car.

MU student Mallory Benedict, 20, was texting when she crashed her car two years ago. Her mother keeps the photos of her smashed Chevy Blazer in a kitchen drawer, where they’re easily accessible when the conversation turns to the accident.

The textual evidence

Campaigns and legislation rely on statistical evidence to address the dangers of texting and driving. In July, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute released a groundbreaking study that became a platform for awareness. The results were based on large-scale naturalistic driving studies, according to the Institute's Web site.

The study proved that text messaging increases the risk of a crash or near-crash event 23.2 times over nondistracted driving. Compared to other forms of cell phone use, texting proved to create the highest risk for both truck drivers and drivers of lightweight vehicles, like cars.

The study also showed that texting required the eyes to be off the road for the longest duration of time, 4.6 seconds over a six-second interval. The researchers compared this to a driver traveling the length of a football field at 55 mph without looking at the roadway.

In its own research, Car and Driver magazine compared texting and driving to drunken driving. In the experiment, participants were measured by their ability to brake while texting compared to when their blood alcohol level was .08 percent. The study found that texting resulted in the worst reaction times and concluded that texting might actually be more dangerous than driving drunk.


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“When I went home, everyone knew about the accident because of my mom,” said Mallory Benedict, who is from Virginia. “I was like, ‘Oh, my mom talked to you, didn’t she? That’s embarrassing.’”

Now, with growing national attention on distracted driving and possible federal legislation in the works, Benedict openly talks about the night she almost lost her life because of a text message. As campaigns focus on Benedict's age group, those most likely to text and least likely to drive responsibly, the question remains — what does it take to make a text-happy young person put down the phone and focus on the road?

Even Benedict, in spite of her experience, has to fight the temptation to text while she drives.

“I still do it from time to time, but most of the time I just put my phone away so I’m not even tempted,” she said. “It’s just not worth it.”

It was just days before the start of her freshman year when Benedict drove to a party off campus. Enjoying the warm night in August, she had a couple of beers with new friends before heading back to her dorm hours later.

“By the time I left, it was probably like 4 in the morning and I just wanted to sleep in my own bed,” she said.

But she felt that she was sober. “I was completely fine at that point.”

New to the area, Benedict soon realized she was lost. As she was driving, she glanced down at her phone to text a friend for directions home. When she looked up seconds later, she had swerved to the side of the road. After overcorrecting three times, she finally lost control and let go of the wheel. Her car rolled several times before it stopped upside down.

“Everything slowed down, and I was just thinking there was a really good possibility I could die right there because I had no control anymore,” Benedict said.

Benedict, who had been wearing a seat belt, crawled through the driver's side front window*, her cell phone still in hand. She called the first person she could think of, a friend back home in Virginia. After he urged her to call the police, she dialed 911 and tried to describe her location.

"I had no idea where I was,” she said. “There were trees all around me. It was a good thing I was conscious enough to direct them.”

The sun was peeking over the horizon as the police arrived. She told the truth about how she lost control of the car.

"They weren't too pleased when they knew I had been texting," Benedict said. "They were like, 'Obviously you could have died or hurt yourself.'"

Despite the severity of the crash, the only care she required was a warm shower to wash the glass out of her hair.

"I came away so lucky," she said. "I hardly had a scratch."

That morning, she told her mother how she'd crashed the car. Her mother decided a punishment like taking the car away was beside the point: it was totaled, and Benedict didn't want to drive anyway. Besides, her mother said, "If you don't learn from going through something like that and having such a close call with death — I don't know if any punishment I could have given her could have done justice with what she had been through."

Enforcing the issue

Many states have passed laws specifically prohibiting texting while driving. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia ban text messaging for all drivers, and nine states prohibit text messaging by novice drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

If passed, the ALERT Drivers Act of 2009 would reduce federal highway funding to states that do not enact a law prohibiting texting while driving. That could increase the number of states that decide to pass text messaging bans.

Wireless companies and insurance groups support legislation aimed at texting drivers. In a recent release, the AAA announced that the motor club will work to pass laws that ban text messaging by drivers in all 50 states by 2013. Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Sprint Nextel have also voiced support for texting bans.

As of August, drivers 21 years old and younger in Missouri face up to a $200 fine if caught texting, but law enforcement officials are aiming for increased awareness.

“It’s up in the air whether this law will be an effective deterrent,” said Jessie Haden, Columbia Police Department public information officer. “Hopefully it will be a starting point for more education.”

Since the ban went into effect in August, law enforcement officials have struggled to enforce it effectively.

“When someone is just looking down, it’s hard to tell whether they’re texting or not,” Haden said.    

Currently, the police officer, witnesses, passengers or even drivers can report that texting was a factor in an accident.

“People lie to us a lot,” Haden said. “But sometimes they are just upfront and admit they were on their cell phone.”

Although the police have access to phone records to determine whether texting caused an accident, they use it only in extreme circumstances.

“With something like a crash with multiple injuries or fatalities, it would make sense to look into phone records and determine if phone use was a contributing factor,” Haden said. “Otherwise texting while driving is no different than being distracted. We could put in a crash report that we saw the person on the phone, but that’s really up to the officer’s discretion.” 

The Missouri State Highway Patrol releases public service announcements each year designed to curb distracted driving. Many of this year's announcements focused on driver cell phone use.

“They’re aimed to reduce traffic crashes and save lives,” said Capt. Tim Hull, director of the Public Information Division of the Highway Patrol.

The Highway Patrol is now working to educate young drivers on the new texting ban.

“Part of any statute is the public education aspect of it,” Hull said. “We incorporate new statutes at safety education programs in schools around the state to make it part of the educational process.”

Officers also rely on daily interactions to inform young drivers of the recently passed law.

“If (officers) see a cell phone on the seat next to them, they may just remind them that receiving or sending a text could result in a fine,” Hull said.

The young and the text-less

The challenge is that the group most likely to text and drive — young people — is also most likely to have a sense of immortality.

"Young drivers have the tendency to think they are invincible and take more chances than older, more experienced drivers," Hull said. "Texting is also more popular among young people."

According to a June 2009 Nielsen Company report, the average U.S. teenager sends or receives an average of 2,899 text messages per month. And despite the danger, it's obvious that some of these still originate behind the wheel.

Denis McCarthy, an assistant professor in the department of psychological sciences at MU, attributes part of the issue to brain development.

"For younger people — people 21 and under — there is a reason to believe that areas of the brain that are used for processing consequences, long-term planning, and refraining from risky or impulsive behavior isn't developed until their early 20s," McCarthy said, referring to recent studies on brain imaging.

He also added that people tend to fall back into a habit even after they experience severe consequences.

"My thought is, you might text 100 times and get in an accident once," McCarthy said. "You still, on average, got away with it more times than you got caught. It's hard for people to make correct or accurate decisions based on that."

Getting the message out

As states individually address distracted driving, international attention to the issue recently made waves among the YouTube generation.

A graphic four-minute film released in Wales captured a global audience. The original video, in which a young woman kills four people in an accident caused by texting, has generated more than 7 million hits since August. Many media outlets have used the video to promote a universal message.

Haden is even considering featuring it on the Columbia Police Department’s Web site, which she plans to update this year.

“As a member of law enforcement, you don’t want people to lose perspective on safety,” Haden said. “Without a visual image of what happened, it’s easy to not be impacted."

Despite personal testimony, new laws, videos and statistics that clearly outline the dangers of distracted driving, even well-informed drivers continue to text. Recognizing this, Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood invited more than 250 safety experts, researchers, elected officials and members of the public to participate in the Distracted Driving Summit in Washington, D.C., from Sept. 30 to Oct. 1, according to the department's Web site.

Several groups participated, including AT&T, which plans to launch a new campaign aimed specifically at texting while driving. The campaign will include employee education, public service announcements, online resources, customer communication and even handset messaging. With the holiday season approaching, AT&T plans to include “don’t-text-and-drive” messages on plastic clings that protect handset screens, according to information released by the company.

Seventeen magazine Editor-In-Chief Ann Shoket hosted a youth panel at the summit, where she talked to two students who caused car crashes while texting and a young advocate in Minnesota who is working to educate her peers on the dangers of distracted driving.

Because the texting ban in Missouri specifically targets 16- to 21-year-olds, peer input might be the most effective way to reach teens.

“It’s different hearing a perspective from someone your age,” Benedict said. “Especially because they’re targeting that specific demographic.”

Although educational campaigns and legislative measures aim to reduce traffic accidents, the decision ultimately lies with individual drivers who choose whether to text. Often, passengers who ask drivers to hold off on texting can be influential as well.

Benedict urges her friends not to text while they drive. Her younger sister, who is learning to drive, can expect a serious talking-to from her older sister sometime soon, Benedict said.

“It's never that important that it can’t wait five minutes,” she said. “You could lose your entire life over a text message. That’s just stupid.”

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Larissa Dalton October 27, 2009 | 2:44 p.m.

This is an amazing article - great job!

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking October 28, 2009 | 8:45 a.m.

Maybe we should start pulling people licenses, for years (or permanently) for accidents related to distracted driving. Since losing a driver license in this car-addled country seems to be the worst thing that can happen to anyone, maybe that would get people's minds back on the road where they belong.

A car is a deadly weapon. It is the pinnacle of irresponsibility to not be in full control of it at all times.


(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote October 28, 2009 | 10:36 a.m.

As a bicycle commuter I would like to see all of these gadgets banned for drivers, and on par with DUI offenses. It is a bit disconcerting when an SUV slowly creeps over into my lane as the driver's head is looking down at their phone/distracting device. There is generally a split second before they look up and realize they have drifted into the wrong lane in which I scan the side of the road for a suitable place to bail out. As this article demonstrates the probability of these devices causing an accident is not zero.

(Report Comment)
Daren James October 28, 2009 | 1:58 p.m.

There is already a law on the books they can enforce to stop this. It's called distracted driving. Why take the time to make and pass another law?

(Report Comment)
Betsy Murphy October 30, 2009 | 10:38 p.m.

Quite a story: Not even a freshmen yet (and not old enough to drink legally), this girl is out, drinking, in the wee hours of the morning and wrecks her car, yet 'everyone understands', and Mom buys her a new car. Too much money and not enough brains in this family.

(Report Comment)

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