THE BLOG
11/03/2011 01:38 pm ET | Updated Jan 03, 2012

Texting While Driving Poses Real Dangers

When it comes to street safety, there's some good news and some bad news. The good news is that nationwide drunk driving rates are dropping significantly. Though drunk driving crashes still cause about one-third of all motor vehicle deaths, a recent Center for Disease Control study reports that adults report drinking a driving at the lowest rate since 1993. The bad news is that distracted driving research is far less promising. If we want to see distracted driving rates take a dive, it's time for California law to reflect the seriousness of the danger that using a phone while driving presents.

Certainly we should not undervalue the tireless efforts by organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and various local law enforcement and public campaigns targeting the issue. All throughout the country, ads like this one blanket public space, ensuring the message connects -- if nothing else, by osmosis. MADD is the poster child organization for fomenting a sea change in the cultural values that shape the way we drive. Their work to bring the dangers of drunk driving to the fore of American consciousness played a vital role in that change. Mothers gave a face to the victims, as well as the wreckage left behind, and spoke with an emotional outrage that demanded public opinion take notice. Now, Distraction.gov is trying to do the same for distracted driving.

But beyond public awareness efforts, there have also been crucial changes to the law. In California, drunk drivers face, on the first offense, a $1000 fine, a suspended license and mandatory jail time of up to six months. By comparison, according to California distracted driving laws, a first offender incurs just a $300 dollar fine. Yet is drunk driving that much more dangerous than texting while driving?

Consider the results of a troubling study recently conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic. The report states that 95 percent of drivers surveyed recognize that text messaging behind the wheel is a serious threat, and 88 percent feel the same way about cell phone use. Clearly, driver education and advocacy work to bring this danger to light has been impactful.

But here's the scary part: even though almost everyone recognizes the life-threatening dangers associated with distracted driving, more than a third of those same respondents also said they had read or sent a text message while driving in the last month. A full two-thirds said they've talked on their phone in that period.

So while people are recognizing the danger, so far that cognitive understanding has motivated adjustments in behavior. The disconnect is frightening, and suggests that people think others are far more dangerous when driving while texting than they themselves are. It's not selfishness or even ignorance per se, but it is how terrible accidents happen.

And it's a problem reflected in California laws that fail to account for the local Bay Area tragedies caused by distracted driving.

Perhaps the difference in how we judge drunk versus distracted driving stems from the fact that, while many consider drinking alcohol to be a general gateway to irresponsible behavior, texting and talking on our phones is an inseparable part of modern life. Many people under 25 may never have a landline phone in their homes. A key component of new phone technology is that we can instantly connect with and respond to our coworkers, friends and family. Plenty of people abstain from drinking, but it's near impossible harder to find young people who abstain from texting.

So there's an issue of context. A behavior that's appropriate in almost every part of our lives is dangerous when driving. If people have been caught shaving while driving, it shouldn't be surprising that cell phone use is considered OK.

But understand this: researchers from Texas A&M's Transportation Institute have quantified how distracting cell phone use can be, and the results are shocking. TTI tested reaction times for focused drivers and then for those using cell phones by monitoring how long drivers took to react to a flashing light (which could symbolize an actual yellow or red light as well as a pedestrian unexpectedly crossing the street).

Normal reaction times were "a second or two," but doubled when a cell phone was put in the driver's hand. Texting drivers were eleven times more likely to miss the flashing warning lights all together.

The test was performed in a controlled setting, on flat ground with on a straight course. Variables that challenge even focused drivers were all but negated. As the researchers put it in the 43-page report "it is frightening to think of how much more poorly our participants may have performed if the driving conditions were more consistent with everyday, routine driving."

Most people, even those who text and drive, probably wouldn't be bowled over by these findings. It's not all that surprising that a driver whose attention shifts from the myriad variables of the road to a four-inch handheld screen stands to lose track of the details of his or her environment. And it makes sense that we, as a culture, almost uniformly recognize that, while wielding a 1,500 pound object, the effect of this shift in attention increases the potential for life-threatening accidents.

What doesn't make sense is that while we recognize the cause and effect of distracted driving, many still don't think the dangers apply to them. Our laws not only reflect, but direct cultural values. More aggressive legislations that target California drivers who text and drive can help change the all too common perception that it's someone else's problem.

Beckley Mason writes a Bay Area street safety advocacy blog.