Is that text message really worth a life?


NET RESULTS:Using a mobile while driving can impair judgment even more than driving over limit. So why do we do it? asks KARLIN LILLINGTON

WHAT’S A human life worth? More than, say, the cost of sending a text message? Of making a mobile-phone call?

Chances are that you, or a close friend or relative, have made the decision that, actually, you place the higher value on an SMS or phone call.

Using a mobile handset for calls or texts while driving has been shown to impair judgment as badly as, or even more than, driving over the drink-driving limit. Yet you, or that friend or relative, would probably never consider driving home from a party after several glasses of wine or a few pints.

Car and Driver magazine demonstrated how risky these activities were two years ago.

The magazine put its editor behind the wheel of a car doing 70mph (113km/h) on a disused landing strip and found that, unimpaired, he took just over half a second to brake in response to a red light going on inside the car.

Having had enough to drink to put him just over the limit, he travelled 4ft farther before hitting the brakes. Reading an e-mail while sober, it took him an additional 36ft.

Sending a text while sober, it took him an extra 70ft before braking.

If a car brakes in front of you or a person appears on the road before you, 70ft is unlikely to be time enough to prevent a collision or a potential death.

Yet oblivious, we continue to text and gab on handsets while driving.

Two fresh studies show how common this behaviour is, especially among the least experienced drivers.

A study published this week by the Pew Charitable Trust showed that 37 per cent of US teens aged 16-17 admitted to texting while driving, and more than half said they had been a passenger in a car while the driver was texting.

Half of mobile-phone-owning teens aged 16-17 also said they had chatted on their mobile while driving, even though this is illegal in many states, including one of the largest, California.

Truly scary is this finding: 40 per cent said they had been in a car where someone else used a mobile handset in way that put themselves or others in danger.

Those results come from a survey of 800 teens aged 12-17.

I am willing to wager the same would hold true for Irish teens, although in the US the trend is especially worrying as most teens have a driving licence by 15½ or 16, so there are a lot more teen drivers there. But we have plenty of inexperienced late-teen to early 20-something drivers.

As insurance statistics bear out, drivers in their teens and early 20s everywhere cause far more accidents due to lack of experience and weaker judgment.

This is the age group most likely to be using mobiles and perhaps, therefore, they would also be more tempted to use them while driving.

Not that older adults are much better. One in five American adult drivers admitted to texting while driving in the previous 30 days, according to recent research from the American Automobile Association (AAA).

It found that 67 per cent of drivers said they spoke on their mobiles while driving, with 28 per cent doing so regularly.

In response, the AAA has launched a campaign to ban handset use in cars in all 50 states by 2013, a move overwhelmingly supported by Americans, surveys show.

Going by my own driving experiences, drivers regularly use their handsets while in the car. It is harder to judge if people are texting because you usually cannot see the handset being used in this way, but which of us doesn’t constantly see people yakking away on mobiles while in the driver’s seat?

Maybe sometimes, it is us?

“The new technologies that help us multitask in our everyday lives and increasingly popular social media sites present a hard-to-resist challenge to the typically safe driver,” AAA regional president Tom Frymark said in launching the campaign.

What makes doing this so compelling? Are the technologies to blame? And how can it be effectively addressed?

I’d argue that it is the behaviour, not the technology, that is the problem. Handsets are not about to go away.

Enforcement of existing laws is an issue. There are so few gardaí assigned to traffic duty that there seems to be little fear among drivers that they will be caught.

There is also a mindset issue. There has always been a culture of “getting away with it” here.

On the more positive side, technology is likely to address these issues as time passes. Already coming into being are programs that will read out text messages and do speech-to-text conversions to send them.

I’d expect to see built-in hands-free sets in cars as well. Perhaps such gear will become mandatory in new cars.

In the meantime, we need better driver education and better enforcement of existing laws.

And every time you are tempted to reach for the handset, ask yourself: is that text message or quick call really worth a life?

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