Taboo grows on texting, driving

Push is on to add social condemnation to legal sanctions

By John Branton, Columbian Staff Reporter

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If you were to drive up to your girlfriend’s home with a bottle of whiskey in your hand, it might not go over well with her — and you’d likely get an earful from her parents and have the door slammed in your face.

So why do so many folks consider it OK to drive with a cell phone held to their ear, chatting away, which is said to be as dangerous as driving while intoxicated?

And what about driving while texting, which is believed even more dangerous and led to the death of a bicycling Hudson’s Bay High School teacher, Gordon Patterson, in September 2009? Dangerous for the driver too: He got a five-year prison sentence.

A group of volunteers, the Driven to Distraction Task Force of Washington State, says its members are looking for ways to drive those points home, and they are inviting others to help.

The mission: “To make phone-related distracted driving as socially and legally unacceptable in Washington state as drunk driving is today.”

Task force members include emergency-room physicians, public-health experts, crash-injury investigators, attorneys, prosecutors, members of bicycling groups and parents of distracted-driving victims.

On its website, http://nodistractions.org, the group cites research saying it takes drivers who are talking on cellphones a half-second longer to brake in emergencies, and that “they miss more than half of the visual cues spotted by attentive drivers.”

As for texting drivers, the dangers are extreme, for themselves and folks in other cars. Research says texting truck drivers are 23 times more likely to crash — and that texting drivers look down at their phones for an average of 5 seconds, about a football field’s length while driving at highway speeds.

“Our common denominator,” the task force says, “is that we are frightened and appalled by what we’re seeing on the roads every day, and we are committed to making a difference.”

A link on the nodistractions.org website brings up a news story about students at Seattle’s Ingraham High School, who have issued a challenge to discourage texting while driving.

Using about $750 donated by State Farm Insurance, students are offering three prizes for the best video and highway billboard designs that show the dangers of driving while texting. And they’ve invited students at other schools in the area to submit entries, according a Jan. 31 story from Q13 FOX News in Seattle.

State troopers and police helped launch the contest that same day and helped with a skit about a car driven by Heather Lerch, 19, who was killed last year while texting, the story says.

Hiding danger

Police officers in Clark County are issuing plenty of $124 tickets for driving while chatting, according to numbers released last month by the Washington State Patrol, Clark County District Court and other police agencies.

But enforcing the state law against texting while driving is difficult.

For example, troopers in Clark County wrote 418 tickets last year for driving while chatting, and only 16 for driving while texting, according to a story published Jan. 10 in The Columbian.

“It’s a lot harder to see,” said WSP spokesman Dan Coon. “People are getting smarter and putting (the cell phone) down lower than we can see.”

Smarter about avoiding tickets, that is, not smarter about avoiding collisions.

A Feb. 2 bulletin from the task force calls the mayhem from driving while texting a “senseless epidemic.” It refers to a documentary video made by AT&T that contains interviews with young drivers who killed others while texting, and interviews with victims’ friends, parents and others.

One young man, shown while undergoing physical therapy for severe injuries and barely able to speak, describes a texting crash he was in. A young woman grieves because she sent the last text to a friend who, distracted by it, crashed and died.

The video, with more than 1.5 million visitor hits, also shows the needless text messages, including “LOL” and “Where r,” that came just before each crash.

The video can be seen at http://youtube.com — search for “AT&T Don’t Text While Driving Documentary.”

John Branton: 360-735-4513 or john.branton@columbian.com.