Time to end texting from the driver’s seat

Here are a couple of statistics for state lawmakers to chew on before they return to Olympia in January for their 2010 legislative session.

 • Twenty-six percent of American teens ages 16 and 17 say they’ve texted while behind the wheel.

 • Forty-eight percent of youngsters 12 to 17 say that they’ve been passengers in a car while the driver used a cell phone to send or receive text messages.

The statistics come from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project that looks at teens, mobile phones and distracted driving. Researchers telephoned 800 teens and followed up with nine focus groups with middle and high school students. The survey found that boys and girls are equally likely to text while driving, and that the older they get the greater the chance they will be passengers of a texting driver.

Teens were quick to say that their parents and older siblings are equally guilty of texting while driving. Many teens described texting behind the wheel as a “family affair.”

“Cell phones are often seen as devices that can make our lives more efficient, allowing us to multitask in our idle moments and whether you’re a teenager or an adult, it’s tempting to think you can manage several different activities at once,” said Mary Madden, co-author of the Pew report. Her co-author, Amanda Lenhart, said: “Many teens understand the risks of texting behind the wheel, but the desire to stay connected is so strong for teens and their parents that safety sometimes takes a back seat to staying in touch with friends and family.”

Teens told the researchers that they text while driving to stay in touch with friends and family members and to get driving directions. Some said they try to restrict their texting to interludes while stopped at red lights.

Distracted driving is a serious issue and the primary reason why Washington state lawmakers have banned the use of hand-held cellular telephones and texting while driving. But they are only secondary offenses. That means a police officer must observe the driver violating another traffic law before the motorist can be pulled over for using a hand-held phone or texting.

It’s time to make both a primary offense. That would allow law enforcement officers to stop and cite drivers engaged in either risky behavior.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 5,870 people died and another 515,000 people were injured last year in accidents attributed to distracted driving. While it’s true that 11,773 traffic fatalities were caused by drunken driving, it’s troubling that driver distraction was reported to have been involved in 16 percent of all fatal crashes in 2008 according to data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System. Not surprisingly, the age group with the greatest proportion of distracted drivers was the under-20 crowd. According to federal officials, 16 percent of all under-20 drivers in fatal crashes were reported to have been distracted while driving.

Youths 15 to 20 years old represent 6 percent of licensed drivers, but accounted for 19 percent of traffic fatalities in the United States in 2007.

The Washington Legislature has adopted a graduated licensing program to give young drivers more experience behind the wheel in the hope that fewer of them will be involved in fatal accidents.

It was the right thing to do.

It’s important to note than not every distracted driver involved in a fatal crash was talking on their cell phone or texting.

Distracted driving also includes eating, drinking, conversing with passengers, as well as involvement with in-vehicle technologies such as GPS tracking, as well as portable electronic devices like iPods.

A random survey of motorists in the West showed nearly 3 percent appeared to be texting while driving, according to NHTSA. Those were people of all ages and that’s why the Legislature needs to act.

It’s time to make texting while driving and use of hand-held cell phones a primary offense in Washington state.