Driving safely requires concentration, but today, there are many distractions that take a driver's attention away from the road. Dialing a cell phone while driving, for example, makes you almost three times more likely to have an accident. Talking on the phone is only a little less dangerous. But a new study found that the collision risk increases by more than 23 times when a driver picks up a cell phone to send a text message. Such studies support efforts to ban texting and regulate other distracting behaviors while driving.
Weida Stoecker vividly remembers the day her husband was killed in a car crash in 2007. "I was five minutes behind him," she says. "I was coming home from work. I had called him on the phone when I left school and said 'I'm on my way home.' He didn't respond, but I didn't think anything of it. When I got off of Interstate 83, there was a lot of traffic."
She told NBC News she was shocked to discover that her husband was the victim of the accident that had caused all that traffic. Later, she says, she learned that the driver who hit her husband's car was a 17-year-old, who was sending a text message at the time.
More states passing laws to ban texting while driving
To honor the memory of her husband and others who have been in such terrible situations, Stoecker began advocating for laws against texting while driving. Finally, she says, her efforts paid off in her home state of North Carolina.
"The legislature passed a bill on texting this past legislative session," she says. The new law carries a $100 fine for those who are caught texting while driving.
North Carolina is one of 17 states that have now banned texting while driving, according to Anne Teigen, a policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Washingon State was the first to ban the practice in 2007.
"There is a little bit of momentum this year when it comes to state legislatures looking at the issue," Teigen says. "Illinois just passed [and] their governor just signed a bill. Ten states have passed texting bans this year."
David Strayer is delighted to see more states banning texting while driving. "I think that's the right answer for the text messaging for sure," he says. "Those two different activities, driving and text messaging simply don't mix."
Other distractions also cause accidents
Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, has spent a decade studying driver distraction, which he says causes one out of three accidents in the U.S.
"Our vehicle has become a source of all kinds of distractions; radios, eating, applying makeup, and then interacting with a lot of new technology that has taken place over the last 10,15 years." Strayer includes "cell phones, hand free cell phones, instant messaging, interacting with the GPS (global positioning system), virtual gaming, watching TV, surfing the internet, and shuffling through your Ipod to find the next song" in his list of new technologies that are dangerous when driving.
Although there have always been distractions that take a driver's eyes off the road, Strayer says today's distractions are more numerous and more dangerous than ever. "A lot of these new things that are based on delivery of information over wireless networks like cell phones and text messaging and so forth, tend to occupy the mind in a different way than eating a sandwich would," he says. Text massaging takes a driver's eyes off the road for longer period of time, and even a hands-free cellphone conversation can cause a driver to to lose track of where he is. "That kind of distraction is very dangerous," Strayer says.
With new types of distractions making their way into our vehicles every day, Strayer anticipates driving will become a riskier task in the future. Passing new laws to ban such distractions, he says, is crucial. So is raising drivers' awareness of the danger and encouraging them to take responsibility and choose not to multitask while driving. He hopes the findings of the recent studies will convice drivers to voluntarily turn off their PDAs and just focus on the road