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Texting while driving, and the subtext

September 29, 2009 |  3:35 pm

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The buzz-machine is in high gear this week on the issue of texting while driving. Today in Detroit, AT&T Chairman Randall Stephenson announced the company’s initiative to warn drivers, particularly young people, about the dangers of texting behind the wheel. AT&T will also take part in the two-day “Distracted Driving Summit” beginning Wednesday in Washington, D.C., hosted by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

“Texting has increasingly become the way to communicate for many people, and the urge to quickly read and respond – even while driving – can be tempting,” said Stephenson. “Our goal is to send a simple, yet vital, message to all wireless users: Don’t text and drive."

(Maybe the company will offer a rock-your-world shock PSA like the one that recently debuted in the U.K.)

The AT&T news release suggests it might be somehow surprising that the country’s largest telecom and major player in the cell/text communications business might sponsor such a public awareness campaign.

Not really. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have banned texting while driving, and seven states (including California) and the District have banned talking on a hand-held cellphone. Numerous safety organizations, including the National Safety Council, have called for an outright ban on mobile-device use behind the wheel.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation in July that would withhold DOT funds to states that fail to ban texting/e-mailing while driving. In other words, AT&T and other mobile-service providers, and their lobbyists, are going to find themselves in a pitched battle to avoid a flat-out ban on cell use/texting while driving. T

That would be bad for business. It’s smart that AT&T is trying to get ahead of the issue.

Some cocktail-party texting facts: The number of text messages has exploded from a mere 10 billion in 2005 to 110 billion in 2008, according to the CTIA — the Wireless Assn., the cellular phone industry's trade group. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute conducted a study this summer that found texting heavy-truck drivers were 23 times more likely to crash. For other drivers, using a cellphone or reaching for a mobile device increased risk of collision six times.

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On a lighter note, I was recently involved in shooting a TV show about distracted driving. To measure my physiological responses, the producers wired me up with a portable electroencephalograph and other biometric devices and asked to drive a pretty complicated closed course while dealing with a number of distractions. Among them: a drill sergeant yelling in my face; a marching band in the back seat; a firetruck shooting water at me; and a nearly naked young woman writhing in my lap.

And the most distracting, most fit-inducing test? Trying to drive while finding a Chinese restaurant on an iPhone, and then texting my order to that restaurant. I wound up mowing down a half-dozen orange traffic cones during that part of the test. In the real world they could have just as easily been pedestrians.

Texting while driving? Don’t do it. The life you save may be mine.

--Dan Neil

Photos: Dan Neil with "distractions" (top) and wired for testing. Credits: Jeff Amlotte / Los Angeles Times

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