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Texting, talking on cell phone while driving a safety hazard, teacher’s death and research show

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Photo illustration/Associated Press files
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Teens disregard dangers of texting, phoning while driving

Young drivers, we need to talk.

Do you drive your car while punching in text messages on your cell phone?

Feel the need to connect with your friends moment to moment, even while driving, to learn what they had for lunch and what movie they plan to see?

Think you’re so good you can text and drive safely?

Think again.

Growing concerns among researchers about the effect of texting on traffic safety were driven home last fall, in a fatal traffic crash that pierced hundreds of Hudson’s Bay High School students through their hearts — and teachers, friends and family members as well.

About 4 p.m. on Sept. 15, Antonio Cellestine, 18, was texting a girlfriend as he drove on Northeast St. Johns Road near the top of a hill, taking his eyes off the road at times, according to court documents.

Gordon Patterson, 50, a husband, father and popular teacher at Hudson’s Bay, was riding his bicycle home from school, in a bike lane.

As Cellestine texted, his car drifted into the bike lane, hitting Patterson from behind and throwing him into the air. Patterson died of his injuries.

“I just looked up and whoa!” Cellestine later told a girlfriend in a conversation that was recorded while he was in jail.

Last month, Cellestine was sentenced to five years in prison in what’s believed to be Washington’s first conviction of vehicular homicide while texting. Texting while driving has been against the law only since July 2008.

Worst of the worst

If ever there was a traffic violation that drivers — especially those younger than 20 — need to be warned about, it’s texting while driving.

Consider some facts:

• A 13-month study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute placed cameras, sensors and data collectors in vehicles of 241 volunteers of all ages.

The most striking conclusion: Drivers of large commercial trucks who were texting were 23 times more likely to crash, or nearly crash, than truck drivers who weren’t texting.

• Psychologists with the University of Utah used a different method, a driving simulator operated by 20 men and 20 women ages 19 to 23, and studied their responses to various driving scenarios. Those results, revealed in December, said the ones who were texting were six times more likely to crash.

• “Texting drivers look down at their devices for five seconds at a time on average — enough time at highway speeds to cover more than a football field,” according to a study, says the Driven to Distraction Task Force of Washington State.

• Texting is exploding worldwide. In 2008, more than 1 trillion text messages were sent, up from 363 billion in 2007, says CTIA, the international association for the wireless telecommunications industry.

• And drivers younger than 20 were the largest age group of distracted drivers in fatal crashes in 2008.

That’s according to the National Center for Statistics and Analysis, part of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The dangers of driving while texting are viewed as extreme by many researchers.

As a result, in a major nationwide action, the U.S. government recently ordered commercial truck drivers and federal employees not to text while driving.

‘Particularly problematic’

Plenty of studies also have concluded that driving while talking on cell phones is a danger.

“In experiments using driving simulators, many researchers have found that people engaged in cell phone conversations show poorer driving performance than people focused only on driving,” Ira Hyman and several colleagues at Western Washington University in Bellingham reported last year.

“Although drivers may encounter a number of distractions, cell phones appear to be particularly problematic. Cell phone users perform more poorly than people listening to music, listening to books on tape or conversing with a passenger.”

A 2006 study by scientists with the University of Utah “also found that engaging in a cell phone conversation results in poorer driving performance than being legally drunk,” the report said.

Findings like that are the reason that driving while texting, and talking on cell phones while driving, are against the law in many states, including Washington.

Washington legislators have discussed changing the current law, which now classifies both violations as secondary, meaning that police can’t pull you over just for those; they need another reason, such as speeding.

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission, after reviewing the facts, is asking lawmakers to classify both violations as primary, as is the case in Oregon, said Steve Lind, the commission’s deputy director.

“I don’t think many people disagree that there’s a risk if you are talking on a cell phone or texting,” Lind said.

Would authorizing police to pull folks over and write tickets simply for driving while texting, or driving while talking on a cell phone, deter the practices and save lives?

That’s unknown, Lind said. But making failure to wear seat belts a primary violation around 2001 was a huge success as state troopers and local police pulled over thousands of cars while enforcing the Click It or Ticket campaign over several years, Lind said.

Today, Washington’s rate of seat-belt use is one of the best in the U.S., and officials believe it has decreased the number of traffic deaths.

As for the texting and cell phone law, “It should be a primary law,” Lind said. “People should know this is not a law to be played with or ignored.”

The state Senate on Feb. 5 voted, 33-15, to make the texting while driving a primary offense. But it’s controversial.

“I just have to ask whether the most important thing for law enforcement to do right now is to be out looking to see if people are using their cell phones incorrectly,” said Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley, who voted against the bill. Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, and Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, also voted against the bill, while Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, voted for it.

Whether the law is changed from secondary to primary or not, the use of hands-free cell phone devices while driving will remain legal in Washington for now, Lind said.

However, many studies have concluded that hands-free devices aren’t significantly safer than talking on a cell phone while driving, Lind said.

“We don’t believe hands-free cell phones are safer than hand-held cell phones,” said Dick Doane, research analyst with the traffic safety commission. “The problem is not what you’re doing with your hands. The problem is what you’re doing with your mind.”

He added: “The issue is the cognitive impairment, and especially your visual processing. Your eyes may be open but you’re not paying as careful attention to visual stimuli.”

Clown on a unicycle

In a highly publicized study at Western Washington University, psychology professor Hyman and some colleagues designed an experiment performed in Red Square, the university’s large central plaza.

The researchers arranged for a purple-and-yellow-clad clown, with a bright nose, to ride a unicycle around an area where many students converge.

The scientists used trained observers working in pairs to watch four groups of walkers — those talking on a cell phone, those walking alone using no electronic devices, those listening to portable music players, and those walking in pairs.

After watching the walkers go past the clown’s area, where he was highly visible, the observers spoke with the walkers and asked each of them questions.

Asked directly, “Did you see the clown?,” only 25 percent of the cell phone users said they had.

About 51 percent of those walking alone, with no device distracting them, noticed the clown.

More than 60 percent of the walkers who were listening to music spotted the clown, as did more than 71 percent of those walking in pairs.

“We found that individuals walking while talking on a cell phone displayed inattentional blindness in a real-world situation,” the report says.

Plenty of studies are out there to read, some that Lind called “dueling studies.”

For example, a study by the insurance industry, released in January, found that state laws banning driving while using hand-held phones or texting while driving did not result in fewer crashes.

The researchers were with a group that’s part of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The insurance institute is highly respected, but some experts found flaws in that study, Lind said.

The bottom line seems to be that modern-day drivers — those who want to avoid crashes — are challenged to deal with more and more distractions, as folks get busier and life evolves into ever-increasing complexity.

It’s also true that the major technological distractions like texting and cell phones aren’t the only ones that can kill us — or kill folks we might collide with.

“When you take your eyes off the road — to light a cigarette, to grab food, to turn around and look at your kid who’s screaming in the back seat, or adjust the radio — your vehicle is still moving forward at a high rate of speed,” said Doane, the research analyst with the state traffic safety commission.

“And you may have traveled several hundred feet with your eyes off the road, in a 5,000-pound missile.”

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

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