Mobile telephones are now an integral element of everyday life in most developed countries. However, whilst for many users they have become indispensable and almost an extension of the hand – especially for the younger generation – mobile phones can also represent a real safety hazard. Using one whilst driving a vehicle, even if the phone is set to hands free mode, is a distraction from driving, and is illegal in many states and countries. Moreover, using a phone to compile a text message while driving is even more dangerous, because it requires more concentration to input text characters, and, therefore, less concentration is available for the primary task of driving a vehicle in a safe manner. As a result, drivers whom text while on the move are endangering not just their own safety, but the safety of others, too.
The real danger inherent in texting while driving is that it involves the eyes, the hands and the mind – all of which should be 100 percent engaged in the primary activity of driving safely. According to Copeland (USA Today), a comprehensive study undertaken by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety to assess drivers’ mental distraction found using a phone increased “mental workload and distractions.” The subject’s reaction time becomes slower; there is a compromising of brain function, and a driver is likely to miss important visual clues while scanning the road ahead. Those “clues” could include stop signs or pedestrians, for example. The article mentions that a smaller study undertaken by the Texas Transportation Institute found that texting at the same time as driving, but using a voice-to-text software application, was equally as dangerous as creating the texts manually. Failure to devote 100 percent of one’s attention to the process of driving safely inevitably means that accidents are more likely to occur.
One such accident is reported by Gorman in the Daily Mail. He describes the incident that occurred in September 2013 in which a 25-year old Maryland woman driving near Waldorf, Maryland was busy texting and as a consequence drifted off the road, hit a tree, then after descending 60 feet of an embankment ended up in five feet of water in the adjacent lake. Fortunately, she sustained only minor injuries and was able to swim from the submerged car to safety, but is likely to be charged by the police, because texting while driving is illegal in Maryland, and attracts a fine of $70 for a first offense, then $110 for a subsequent infraction. She was also fortunate that no other person – road user or pedestrian – was involved or injured in the incident. There could so easily have been other persons injured or even killed as a result of her lapse of concentration while texting. The article also reports that –according to the National Safety Council – there are approximately 1,600,000 accidents every year caused by people texting while driving a vehicle.
Because it is proving difficult to persuade people not to text while driving, even by publicizing financial penalties applicable if caught texting, perhaps other methods to stop the practice are needed to increase safety and reduce the numbers of accidents. One such method already in existence, and reported by Pogue in the New York Times is to install an “app” (software application) on the cellphone that prevents it being used (for calling, texting, emailing or surfing) so long as the vehicle is in motion at above a defined minimum speed (usually 5 or10 mph). The concept still relies upon the cellphone users electing to install the app, although such apps are being made mandatory by some concerned parents and/or employers. The principle behind these apps is that the phone’s built-in GPS (Global Positioning System) can determine when the phone (and, therefore, the vehicle) is moving at above the preset minimum speed. The phone displays “MESSAGES BLOCKED” and any incoming calls are diverted to voicemail, whilst incoming text messages are not indicated until the vehicle is stationary (for a defined time). Some apps allow unblocking for use by vehicle passengers, and other customised options.
Whilst these apps seem to offer a solution to the problem, they need to be installed on every cellphone to be effective. So long as they are entirely voluntary (from a legislative viewpoint), the vast majority of cellphone users / drivers will still be able to text if they wish. Perhaps the solution would be to compel the cellphone network providers by some means to install a texting block function as standard for every cellphone on their networks, so that there is a total national embargo on the practice. Such a system should be installed as soon as possible to prevent further avoidable accidents involving injury and death to drivers and third parties.
In conclusion, whilst it is clear and supported by evidence that texting while driving is extremely dangerous, it seems that simply by making the practice illegal and imposing a system of fines is not necessarily the answer. For too many people, paying the fine is just an acceptable occupational risk of continuing the practice. Haberman reports in the NY Times that some U.S. States have tried to make it hurt by imposing steep fines. For example, whereas in New York the maximum fine is $150, the same offence in Utah can attract a fine of up to $750 and three months imprisonment, increasing to$10,000 and 15 years respectively if death or injury is involved. Even so, there will still be those who will risk being caught, however steep the penalties. That is why a national system integrated into the cellphone networks by the network providers is the only guaranteed method of stopping texting while driving. It will not only make driving safer (for everyone on or near the roads), but will also cut insurance premiums through reduced claims statistics, and will reduce medical and other associated human costs.
Copeland, Larry. (12 June 2013). “AAA: Hands-free texting and calling are not risk-free.” USA Today. Web. Accessed 19 Feb. 2014. <http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/06/12/aaa-hands-free-texting-calling-driving-safety/2411309/>.
Gorman, Ryan. (11 September 2012). “Texting and driving lands Maryland woman in lake.” Daily Mail. Web. Accessed 19 Feb. 2014. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2417623/Texting-driving-lands-Maryland-woman-lake.html#ixzz2tmjlrVPs>.
Haberman, Clyde. (31 August 2009). “Use of Thumbs Confounds Use of Sense.” New York Times. Web. Accessed 19 Feb. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/01/nyregion/01nyc.html>.
Pogue, David. (28 April 2010). “Your Phone Is Locked. Just Drive.” New York Times. Web. Accessed 19 Feb. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/29/technology/personaltech/29pogue.html?pagewanted=all>.