WASHINGTON, D.C. — Jennifer Smith, a Texas real estate agent, remembers when she considered her car an office, her cellphone a professional lifeline. If it rang, she picked it up. If she thought of information to share, she dialed. She knew that it wasn’t the best idea to chat while driving, of course, but it wasn’t illegal, and she didn’t want to lose clients. Besides, she figured, she was careful.
But then, in September last year, a driver using a cellphone plowed through a red light and slammed into Ms. Smith’s mother’s mini-SUV. Linda Doyle, who’d been on her way to pick up cat food for the Central Oklahoma Humane Society, where she was a regular volunteer, died the next morning.
During the excruciating months that followed, Smith couldn’t shake the feeling that something about the crash didn’t make sense. The driver who killed her mother was a sober, churchgoing 20-year-old who’d never even had a speeding ticket. He had been on the phone for less than a minute. Visibility on the road was excellent. But the police report said that when a trooper asked him what color the traffic light had been, the distraught young man responded that he never saw it. He’d crashed into the driver’s side of Ms. Doyle’s car at nearly 50 m.p.h.; there weren’t even skid marks at the scene.
“He’s a good kid,” Smith says. “He is you and I. He is not just a teenager who doesn’t care. I didn’t understand how someone like that could just drive through a light without seeing it. So I started researching.”
The more she found, the angrier she became. Study upon study showed that talking on a cellphone while driving was far more dangerous than she’d realized – that a driver on a phone had the same reaction speed as someone legally intoxicated, that those talking on a phone behind the wheel are four times as likely to crash, that texting while driving is even more dangerous. And studies repeatedly showed that hands-free headsets – sometimes advertised as safer – were no less dangerous.
“I was just astonished,” she says. Soon, Smith joined a growing movement of crash victims’ families, academic researchers, and public-safety advocates campaigning against “distracted driving.”
This public-safety movement has for years lobbied state legislatures to change driving laws, worked with schools and student groups, and pressured the federal government and industries to set new cellphone regulations. But momentum has picked up recently with some high-profile fatal crashes, including a number involving teens texting while driving. And last month, in what many saw as a coming of age for the movement, the US Department of Transportation hosted a distracted driving summit, where Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood called for action against what he termed a “deadly epidemic.”
“Distracted driving is a menace to society. And it seems to be getting worse every year,” he said.
But he and others say that the fight against distracted driving could be much harder than other public-safety efforts, including the anti-drunken-driving movement that swept the country in the 1980s.
Far more people talk on their cellphones and use other electronic gadgets in the car than drive drunk, safety officials say. A generation of text-happy teenagers are getting their driver’s licenses, and established drivers are increasingly buying smart phones that allow for distracting activity beyond just text-ing and talking – GPS and entertainment devices, too, pull eyes and mental focus off the road.
And even where hand-held phone use in cars is banned – as it is in California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Washington, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands – enforcement is difficult. One study observing New York drivers, for instance, showed that the law did little to reduce the number of drivers with phones to ears.
While dozens of countries – from Australia to Zimbabwe – take a harsh view of this behavior and have banned hand-held phones in cars, there is little social stigma in the US.
Moreover, some research suggests that Americans are actually addicted to their phones. Harvard University psychiatrist John Ratey and other researchers have found that the brain receives a rush when it processes a text message or ring – the same high a gambler feels when hitting the jackpot.
“It is a complex problem,” says David Strayer, who studies cellphones and driving at the University of Utah. “We may have gotten ourselves into an addiction that we might not be able to get out of.”
‘DISTRACTED DRIVING’ IS A CATCHALL TERM that can include all sorts of behavior behind the wheel, from eating to applying makeup to texting. A distracted driver has what psychologists call “inattention blindness” – the brain does not process what is physically within eyesight, such as a red light.
The movement against distracted driving has increasingly focused on what it considers a deadly mix of two American passions: the automobile and new technology.
“There are always going to be distractions,” says David Teater, senior director of transportation strategic initiatives at the National Safety Council, whose 12-year-old son was killed in a crash caused by a driver on a cellphone. “But the advent of mobile electronic communication devices has really changed the game because they’ve become so phenomenally prolific in such a short period of time. We’ve been talking on the phone for 80 years. We’ve been driving 100 years. It’s only recently that we’ve tried to combine the two.”
Most drivers say they’re not happy about sharing the road with others trying the new technology.
A 2009 AAA Foundation study found that 91.5 percent of drivers considered talking on the phone while driving a serious threat to their safety; 97 percent said it was completely unacceptable to send a text or e-mail while driving. But two-thirds of those people admitted talking on their own phones while driving, and 1 in 7 have texted while driving.
Similarly, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study, in which data collectors observed drivers, estimated that 6 percent of drivers at any time are on the phone.
At the University of Utah’s Applied Cognition Laboratory, Professor Strayer has been testing this do-as-I-say theory for a decade. Using neuroimaging and a drive simulator, he and his colleagues have watched what happens when drivers – including those who claim to be able to text, tweet, and talk safely at the wheel – mix cellphones and cars.
The results are stark: Almost nobody multiprocesses the way they think they can. For 98 percent of the population, regardless of age, the likelihood of a crash while on a cellphone increases fourfold; the reaction to simulated traffic lights, pedestrians, and vehicles is comparable to that of someone legally intoxicated.
Although some critics claim that the simulator isn’t real enough, studies of real-life driving in Canada and Australia had similar findings.
Strayer also found little difference between those using hand-held cellphones and those on hands-free headsets. The disruption, he says, is cognitive. Unlike a conversation with a passenger sharing the same physical space of the car, the electronic conversation takes a driver into a virtual space away from the road.
“We record brain activity,” Strayer says, “and we can show that it’s suppressed from the cellphone conversation.”
BUT WHERE, CELLPHONE PROPONENTS ASK, are the crashes? While the number of cellphone subscribers has rocketed to 270 million in the US – the number of auto fatalities has remained stable, at about 40,000 deaths a year. The US Department of Transportation estimates that 6,000 of those are the result of distracted driving, but it has no specific statistics for phone-related deaths. The number of crashes has also remained steady.
“There have been some suggestions by researchers that the risk [of crash] is increased exponentially due to talking on the cellphone,” says John Walls, spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Association, which represents the cellphone industry. “Yet, for whatever reason, we haven’t seen that play out in the number of accidents that occur. Although I would never suggest that that means to talk more in the car.”
He says that his group does not take a stance on phoning-while-driving legislation.
“This is one of the key questions we’re trying to unravel,” says Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Mr. Rader says his group is studying how much the fatality rate should have dropped, given increased safety measures – such as better road construction and improved braking systems – as a way to gauge the real impact of cellphone use.
Another explanation for the statistics, safety experts say, is that people tend to lie about their phone use in crashes. And without a subpoena for cellphone records, there’s no way to check. There’s often no box on the police report to check if the driver admits cellphone use.
The lack of solid statistics means that advocates are constantly explaining themselves and often face an uphill battle in convincing legislatures to enact new cellphone laws.
But recently, the legislative tide has started to turn – thanks, in large part, to text messaging.
Texting drivers are easy to spot. Like drunken drivers, they’re the ones going too slow or too fast, or weaving, says Gregory Massak, the police chief of Shirley, Mass. “They’re concentrating more on [the phone] than on driving.”
His officers are well aware of the impact of this behavior. In September, an 18-year-old died when she crashed her car into a tree seconds after receiving a text message.
But Chief Massak says he has never issued a ticket for texting. In Massachusetts, he explains, there are no laws against cellphones in cars.
This may well change. Swayed in part by a number of highly publicized texting-while-driving deaths, 18 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws banning texting while driving; nine additional states prohibit teenagers from text-ing behind the wheel. This summer, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York introduced legislation that would withhold 25 percent of federal highway funding to states that don’t institute some sort of texting ban. And last month, President Obama signed an executive order banning federal employees from sending texts in government cars.
Texting is a “perfect storm” of distraction, with cognitive, manual, and visual elements, says Strayer. “And it’s primarily teenagers who are doing it. To become a proficient driver takes a few years, so it’s the worst combination – a novice driver multitasking in a way [that takes] their eyes off the road.”
To those who don’t text regularly, these dangers might seem obvious. But for many teens, and a growing number of adults, texting is a central way of communicating – a virtual conversation that doesn’t stop in the car. Even with the growing restrictions, 73 percent of teens admit to texting while driving, according to a Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) study.
“Some of them say that they’re good at typing without looking at the screen; others say they hold it up by their eyes as they text,” says Stephen Wallace, national chairman and CEO of SADD.
Heather Barrett, a college student in Ohio, says she probably receives and sends more than 500 messages a day: “I prefer to text and drive rather than talk and drive. I can put the phone down in the middle of the text if something is going on.”
She says that she has caught herself swerving while texting – “but only on backcountry lanes, and never in traffic.”
JOSHUA WELLER, A SCIENTIST with Decision Research, has studied the perception of risk associated with distracted driving. His preliminary findings suggest a multilayered understanding of risk, similar to the way someone might internalize warnings against smoking. Those with a deeper appreciation of the risks of texting or talking on the phone – people who understand, for instance, that texting while driving 55 m.p.h. is similar to driving the length of a football field with one’s eyes closed – are less likely to do it.
But establishing a widespread social understanding of risk is difficult. So is enforcement. It’s hard to catch a texting driver, and it’s too early to know the impact of texting laws.
Some safety advocates, then, are placing hope in technology to fight technology. Mr. Teater says there are systems in development that block incoming texts when a phone is in a car, responding with an automatic, “Sorry, I’m driving” message.
“We’ve got to rush technology to the market,” he says. “There are a lot of people who will choose to not use phones while driving if there’s a way not to do it but also stay in touch with people. We’re going to have a nightmare on our hands if we don’t get ahead of it.”
Julie Masis, in Boston, contributed to this article.