Texting While Driving: A Deadly Message

By Scott Fitzgerald, Summer Associate

On September 3, 2008, Linda Doyle was killed instantly in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, when a 20-year-old driver ran through a red light and struck her car in the driver's door at approximately 45 mph. The driver who ran the light told police he was typing a text message on his cell phone and never saw the red light or Linda's small SUV.  1 In the aftermath of this tragic car accident, the National Safety Council put up billboards with Linda's picture and created a YouTube video to warn of the dangers of texting while driving. 2

The statistics are horrifying. Studies have shown that texting while driving can be as dangerous as drunk driving. 3 Typing a text message can delay a driver's reaction the same as if the driver was legally intoxicated with a BAC of .08. A recent Virginia Tech study indicates that a driver is up to 23 times more likely to be in an accident when he or she texts while driving. 4

The problem is threefold: visual, mechanical, and cognitive. When typing or reading a text message, a driver's eyes are focused on the cell phone rather than the road. A vehicle traveling 70 mph is travelling almost 103 feet per second. At that speed, a driver sending a five second text message will travel nearly the length of two football fields without looking at the road. A text message also requires a driver to temporarily remove their hands from the steering wheel. And finally, the brain cognitively focuses on the message being sent or received rather than driving.

The idea that the human brain is capable of multi-tasking is a myth. In reality, the brain switches back and forth between primary and secondary tasks. When you attempt to do two complex cognitive functions such as driving and texting, you are overloading your brain, and significant information is filtered out. As a result, you miss visual cues such as stop lights, exits, and other vehicles. Your reaction time to what you do see is significantly slowed. The National Safety Council has named this problem "inattention blindness," where a driver "looks" but does not "see." The phenomenon has been equated with tunnel vision, where drivers look out the windshield, but fail to identify potential hazards and react in time to avoid them. 5

A person has no problem doing multiple activities at once as long as one or more of those activities are not cognitively demanding; for example, walking and chewing gum. However, studies have indicated that pedestrians using their cell phones are less aware of their surroundings and almost twice as likely to step out into traffic without looking than non-distracted pedestrians. 6 Texting and driving are both cognitively demanding brain functions that should not be done simultaneously.

Although it is difficult to track the exact number of deaths caused each year by texting and driving, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that over 6,000 drivers were killed in 2008 from distracted driving. 7 Driver inattention is a factor in approximately 1 million crashes in the United States annually. 8 The number one distraction? Cell phones. Just reaching for a cell phone nearly triples the likelihood of a collision.

Unfortunately, the problem is growing as cell phone usage increases. Texting is a way of life for teenagers and young people, and studies have shown that they do not put down their cell phones when they get behind the wheel. A Pew Research Center study indicates that 59% of 18-33 year olds admit to sending or receiving a text message while driving. 9

However, the problem is not limited to teenagers and young adults. Half of adults aged 34-45, and 21% of adults aged 46-64, admit to texting while driving. As the study called for self-reporting, there is a strong possibility that these numbers are significantly underestimate the true numbers.

Many drivers are unaware that it is not only unsafe to text and drive, but it is also illegal. It is against the law to send or receive a text message while driving in the Commonwealth of Virginia and 29 other states. 10 Virginia's ban took effect beginning July 1, 2009. Texting or emailing while driving is a Class 1 misdemeanor in Virginia punishable by a $20 fine for first offenders and a $50 fine for subsequent offenses. Many other states have targeted teenage drivers specifically and have only banned texting while driving for young drivers.

Regardless of the law in your state, put down your cell phone until you reach your destination. No text message is worth dying over.

About the Author: Scott Fitzgerald is a 2010 Summer Association with the Virginia personal injury law firm of Allen & Allen. With over 100 years of experience, the firm handles car accidents and personal injury claims.

1 -See article at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/19/technology/19distracted.html?pagewanted=all.

2 -To watch the video, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAlLZD2LrC8.

3 -See Strayer, D. L., Drews, F. A., & Crouch, D. J. A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver, The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, Vol. 48, No. 2, June 2006.

4 -See http://www.vtti.vt.edu/PDF/7-22-09-VTTI-Press_Release_Cell_phones_and_Driver_Distraction.pdf.

5 -See http://www.nsc.org/safety_road/Distracted_Driving/Documents/Dstrct_Drvng_White_Paper_Fnl(5-25-10).pdf.

6 -See http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/17/technology/17distracted.html.

7 -See http://www.dot.gov/affairs/DOT%20HS%20811%20216.pdf.

8 -See http://www.aaafoundation.org/multimedia/headsupfacts.cfm.

9 -See "Adults and Cell Phone Distractions", Pew Trust report, June 2010, p. 8, found at http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Cell-Phone-Distractions/Overview.aspx?r=1.

10 -To view a map with each state's laws on texting while driving, see http://www.iihs.org/laws/maptextingbans.aspx. See Virginia Code § 46.2-1078.1, at http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+cod+46.2-1078.1.