Txt u l8r; time 2 drive

Our view: Maryland's law banning the sending of text messages while driving doesn't go far enough; it's time for the federal government to step in with broader restrictions
September 29, 2009
Maryland's law banning the practice of sending text messages while driving goes into effect Thursday, and not a moment too soon. It comes amid a steady stream of evidence that electronic distractions in the driver's seat pose a serious and growing threat to highway safety. Researchers have found that texting behind the wheel is about as dangerous as driving drunk. A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study of truckers found they were 23 times more likely to get in an accident if they texted behind the wheel, a risk about four times greater than dialing a cell phone. When it comes to the myriad distractions drivers subject themselves to behind the wheel, from fiddling with the GPS to eating and drinking, this one - which takes hands off the wheel and eyes off the road - is particularly dangerous.

But the news about texting may be having the perverse effect of distracting lawmakers from taking up the issue of other dangerous (and in some cases, far more common) activities behind the wheel.
Maryland's texting ban was the first major distracted-driving bill to succeed in the General Assembly in more than a decade of attempts by safety advocates, but its approach is narrowly tailored to just one activity: sending a text message. Reading texts is still OK. Using applications on your iPhone? Perfectly legal. It's not even absolutely certain that the law would apply to posting updates on Facebook or Twitter - or even sending an e-mail on your BlackBerry.

Given the difficulty of even getting that flawed legislation through the General Assembly, the odds of closing those loopholes seems slim. And the chances of tackling other distractions? Even worse.

Texting may be particularly dangerous, but it's also not as common as some other activities behind the wheel. For that reason, the Virginia Tech study found that while texting does the most to increase a trucker's risk, it contributes less to the number of crashes and near misses than other activities, such as consulting the on-board dispatching devices common in trucks, dialing a cell phone or even looking at a map. Using an on-board dispatching device puts a driver at 10 times more risk for an accident than an un-distracted driver, compared to 23 times for a texting driver. But eliminating the use of on-board computers would reduce accidents and near-misses by 3.1 percent, compared to just 0.7 percent for texting, the study found.

Fortunately, the federal government is contemplating taking up the issue. Safety advocates are pressuring the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to enact broad rules banning the use of electronic devices by commercial truckers, which would be an important step, given that the risks of distraction are much greater when paired with large vehicles that are difficult to maneuver and cause massive damage in accidents. According to Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a group petitioning for the change, commercial trucks make up 3 percent of registered vehicles but are involved in 12 percent of traffic fatalities. Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety is pushing for a wide-ranging inquiry into the safety of all electronic devices used by drivers, which could form the basis for a rational national policy.

The federal government has a clear role in regulating commercial trucks because of their use in interstate commerce, but it would have to take up dangerous practices in private vehicles more indirectly. Congress is also considering legislation that would strip federal highway funds from states that do not adopt bans on texting while driving in private cars, much in the same way that it ensures minimum standards for drunk-driving laws. Such an action would give drivers a uniform standard from coast to coast, but Congress must define electronic distractions broadly so that evolving technology doesn't outstrip the law.
Copyright © 2009, The Baltimore Sun

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