Commentary: Quit texting and drive

The Miami HeraldMay 21, 2012 

Looking back, it was such a quaint little crusade, a futile gesture against the indomitable lure of technology that never got much beyond a bumper sticker slogan: “Shut up and drive.”

I first tried warning South Floridians in 1993 that talking on their cells while driving posed a particular hazard in our local culture. “A phone in one hand, a steering wheel in the other, how can you aim a pistol?”

Four years later, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study that seemed to vindicate us Luddites. Cellular telephone conversations were found to be the statistical equivalent of drunk driving — as unsafe as tooling down the highway with a 0.10 percent blood alcohol level. Cell phone talkers were four times more likely to be involved in an automobile accident than a driver enmeshed in solitude.

In retrospect, a mere four-fold increase in danger seems hardly worth the worry. The National Highway Safety Administration reports that texting while driving ups the danger 23-fold. In the age of incessant texting, a sloppy drunk yapping on his cell phone has chosen the safer, preferable driving option. (I’m still working the snappy phrase that would convey this via bumper sticker.)

None of this, of course, has impressed the Florida Legislature, which prefers mangled, smoking, bloody highway pile-ups to the terrible specter of an intrusive government. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia ban cell phone use by novice drivers. Ten states, D.C., Guam and the Virgin Islands prohibit conversations by hand-held cells. Thirty-eight states, D.C. and Guam passed the no-brainer texting bans. Even Louisiana, home of the drive-through daiquiri stand, prohibits texting while driving.

Florida will have none of this. A texting ban went nowhere in this spring’s legislative session.

Worries about personal freedom apparently trumped the statistical evidence piling up on the highways. And a survey of 1,200 young drivers conducted by AT&T last month won’t do much to reinforce motorists’ collective sense of wellbeing.

Some 43 percent of the teens surveyed admitted to texting while driving (including 54 percent of Hispanic teenagers). The poll takers assume that if they could administer truth serum, the percentage would be higher. Particularly since 61 percent say their friends text while driving.

These daunting numbers seem damn near inevitable, given other findings disclosed by AT&T. Teens now exchange an average of 3,417 text messages a month. AT&T said this works out to seven texts exchanged for every waking hour.

With the kids cranking out texts at that rate — and 89 percent say that within this new social construct, they expect to receive an answer within five minutes — it becomes almost a statistical impossibility to imagine they refrain from texting during the time they’re behind the wheel.

Against this, AT&T juxtaposed another finding — 97 percent say they know that it’s a dangerous habit; 75 percent say texting is very dangerous.

Yet they do. Along with an ever rising percentage of texting, Facebook posting, tweeting adults. If only we could convince drivers to quit texting and start talking. Like the good old days.

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