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Driving While Distracted:
Text-Messaging on the Road to Danger

You’ve probably seen one or two of them today:

Cyberspace zombies stumbling off the curb while thumbing their BlackBerries. Cell-phone yappers ramming you with their grocery carts. iPod junkies forgetting to get off the elevator.

It’s okay with us that some folks can’t get along without all their PDAs and MP3s. We just don’t want them threatening the rest of us by asserting their right to manipulate their gadgets while driving.

We’ve been on this high horse before when the issue was using hand-held mobile phones behind the wheel. (To no avail, we would add.) Now the ante’s been upped to text messaging in cars. We’ve read stories about texting blamed for terrible accidents, like one in New York last year: a texting teen died after her SUV swerved into oncoming traffic.

Early in this Maryland General Assembly, we saw legislation that would prohibit texting while driving. There’s still time this session to make the proposal law. But it appears possible that such legislation, as well as a ban on hand-held cell phones, might get softened or stalled.

We don’t get it. We’ve see these sorts of bans in more than two dozen states and localities; such a law took effect in New Jersey recently, stipulating $100 fines for text-messaging or cradling cell phones behind the wheel.

One of the studies people around the country point to was conducted near us. After using in-vehicle cameras and sensors to monitor 42,000 hours of driving over a one-year period, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute concluded that “secondary task distraction” was a main factor in auto accidents. The biggest culprit? You guessed it: hand-held wireless devices.

Mobile phone chatters at least see what’s going on around them. Mostly, anyway. But texting requires another order of magnitude in concentration: One study found that drivers take their eyes off the road more than a dozen times every 30 seconds to look at the screen or key pad.

Other studies have found that texting drivers are 23 percent slower to brake and six times more likely to get in an accident.

And here’s yet another study, one that should frighten folks in Calvert and Anne Arundel counties, where we’ve been losing too many young people to highway tragedies: Thirteen percent of teen drivers admitted to text-messaging while driving. Wonder how many didn’t admit it.

It often seems like Maryland is a heavy-regulatory state in ways that do people little good. While there’s still time this legislative session, why not send the message that text messaging behind the wheel is not only risky, it’s illegal.

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