The popularity of texting has skyrocketed over the past four years. For the first time, the number of monthly text messages sent exceeded 100 billion at the end of 2008, an 11-fold increase in three years. As technology evolves and becomes more ingrained in our business activities, so do the number of ways employees use cell phones while driving.
However, texting and driving are not compatible activities. Studies found drivers take their eyes off the road for about five seconds when texting. A study by Car and Driver magazine found that texting while driving is more dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol. Drivers become so absorbed in a text message, their ability to concentrate on driving is impaired. Data shows a 2,200-percent increase in crash risk. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute conducted a study that found those who text while driving were 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash. As a result of this reality, several hundred companies have already banned employees from using cell phones while driving, according to a study by the National Safety Council.
A Legislative Tsunami
The state of Washington passed the nation's first law banning texting while driving in May 2007. Since then, text messaging while driving has become illegal in Alaska, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, along with various municipalities in other states. Five additional states, including Colorado, Illinois, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Oregon have legislation in place to prohibit text messaging effective Jan. 1, 2010. Utah legislated the toughest law with a possible 15 years in prison if a driver causes an injury or death while texting and driving. On Oct. 1, President Obama issued an Executive Order directing all 4.5 million federal employees not to engage in text messaging while driving.
A proposed federal law, called the ALERT Driving Act bill (Avoiding Life Endangering and Reckless Texting), sponsored by Sen. Schumer of New York, along with other senators, seeks to pressure states through sanctions, such as withholding federal highway funds, if states do not legislate bans on texting while driving.
In addition, the American Automobile Association (AAA) announced plans to work to pass laws banning text messaging by drivers in all 50 states by 2013. The AAA legislative push to enact texting-while-driving bans is supported by new research released by the Auto Club of Southern California demonstrating the ban implemented by the state of California in January 2009 appears to be reducing texting by drivers.
Prior to the California texting-while-driving ban, researchers observed 1.4 percent of drivers at any point in time in Orange County, Calif., were texting while driving. Once the law took effect, only 0.4 percent of drivers were observed texting, a decline of about 70 percent overall. The California study indicates such bans can change the driving behavior of motorists.
Other research in the state of Washington, however, reaches a different conclusion. The number of people reading and sending text messages while driving has doubled in Washington in the past 18 months, according to a survey by PEMCO Insurance. The June 2009 poll revealed 18 percent of Washington drivers who use electronic devices admit to reading or sending text messages while driving.
Some believe a texting ban could have unintended consequences of interfering with productivity devices business drivers and truckers have come to rely on. These include in-cab computers to get route directions via GPS and stay in contact with dispatchers. Many companies require these systems to maintain control of inventory and monitor deadlines. According to the American Trucking Associations, most of its members that use dispatching devices already ban their use while a truck is in motion. Some fear a broad-based ban would seriously affect their ability to efficiently conduct business. In addition, unless there are exemptions, a broad ban to texting while driving could negatively impact data use by first responders, who rely on laptops and other wireless devices to fulfill their mission-critical situations.
Here's another example that illustrates the "gray area complexity" of text messaging bans. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia provide traffic information via Twitter. These notices are issued by state transportation agencies to provide motorists with up-to-the-minute traffic information. State transportation officials say these notices should be read before driving; however, critics say the temptation to get updates while driving is too great, especially when traffic congestion suddenly appears. Do real-time traffic alerts received while driving improve roadway safety by rerouting traffic, or are they another form of distracted driving? Are state transportation officials in conflict with state legislatures that seek to ban distracted driving? Do we eliminate the temptation to view traffic conditions while driving by banning real-time traffic alerts received via cell phones or displayed on a GPS screen?
There are numerous ramifications to banning certain forms of on-board electronic communications that potentially may be counter-productive to driver safety. Most fleets support legislation that bans text messaging while driving, provided it does not inadvertently prohibit the use of in-cab fleet management systems. Let's make sure we target unsafe driving behavior and not on-board productivity tools.
Let me know what you think.