Judging by stories in just the past few weeks, texting while driving has become America's most urgent public safety issue, filling local television screens across the country with stories of crashes, near-misses and dire warnings. The latest: This photo from Washington, the result of a close call by a driver supposedly typing just before the crash. What's less clear is whether a brace of new laws will do much, or how many drivers will be willing to turn off their phones completely while driving.
The scene above comes from Aberdeen, Wash., where a teen-ager at the wheel of a Dodge Ram pickup on Sunday ran off the road into a wooden fence, sending one slat through the windshield where his head should be. According to KOMO-TV, the driver only suffered minor injuries, but the Washington State Police say witnesses saw the driver texting in the moments before the crash.
Last month, a Houston man revealed that moments before a serious crash, he had texted "I need to quit texting because I could die in a car accident." And last week, Alabama became the 39th state to make it a crime to enter text into a phone while behind the wheel; in 10 states and the District of Columbia, it's illegal to pick up your phone at all while driving.
While such laws are still relatively new, some police agencies are already saying they're not effective enough. The problem is the great unanswered question among safety advocates: Is texting that much more or less dangerous than anything else people do with their phones while driving? Alabama's law, like most states, still allows drivers to dial numbers, look at maps and otherwise use the phone, but not text. Telling the difference between the two from outside a car moving 70 mph isn't a job most troopers or anyone else can do, as WCNC-TV in Charlotte, N.C., found when it sent two cameramen out to surreptitiously bust drivers in the act.
And the Alabama law also highlights a mismatch between the furor over texting and what's known about its actual impact. While cellphones have become ubiquitous over the past two decades, deaths in accidents and crashes have declined to record lows. Research has shown time and again that driving with a cell phone reduces concentration and can lead to crashes, but has yet to put a firm link on just how many crashes might be caused directly by electronic distractions. Alabama authorities say their record show that in 2010, drivers distracted by cellphones or other electronic devices contributed to 1,256 crashes and five deaths. It's a sad statistic, but that same year, alcohol-related accidents killed 279 people in Alabama, a figure that did not lead to any new laws.
Whatever the studies say, it's clear that not paying attention behind the wheel for any reason makes driving less safe, even with modern aids like Bluetooth and voice commands. Driving can be tedious, and the need to stay connected so strong that far too many drivers think they can get away with it -- right until the fence comes through the windshield. Once upon a time, people were forced to travel without concern for e-mails and telephone calls they could be missing. Try it on your next drive, and stay off the local news.