In our opinion: Final wake-up call?

Published: Monday, June 11 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Pat Wellenbach, AP

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Officials in Massachusetts are hoping a stiff sentence will do the trick. Last week a Haverhill District Court judge sentenced 18-year-old Aaron Deveau to serve one year in prison and 15 years of a suspend driver license after that sentence is done as punishment for a fatal accident he caused while texting and driving.

An official with a company that manufactures a device that blocks online functions on phones while the operators is driving said, "Maybe this will be the final wake-up call."

We only wish that were so. It probably will be the final wake-up call for Deveau, who isn't likely to soon forget the damage his inattentiveness caused — especially not when he regains driving privileges at the more mature age of 34. As for the rest of the young drivers out there, we have our doubts.

Take the case of Dylan Young, an 18-year-old who caused a minor fender-bender in New Jersey earlier this year. He told the Associated Press he felt "like an idiot" for what he did, and that he will be "a lot more cautious." And yet in the same breath he admitted he still sometimes can't resist the urge to send a text while behind the wheel.

A survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released last week, asked more than 15,000 public and private high school students nationwide whether they had texted or emailed while driving during the previous month. It was the first time such a question had been asked on the survey, which aims to measure dangerous behavior among teenagers. It found 58 percent of seniors admitting to such behavior. Among juniors, the figure was 43 percent, raising a question as to whether young drivers become more reckless as they age.

A researcher at the Pew Research Center in Washington said she has conducted focus groups with teenagers on this subject and has an idea of their behavior, which tends to involve a good deal of rationalization. For instance, some will reason that if the car is at a stoplight or stuck in traffic, texting is OK. Others say it's less dangerous if they hold the phone high so they can supposedly text and watch the road a the same time.

Unfortunately, rationalization is not the sole province of the young. Although statistics show that teenagers cause more traffic accidents than any other age group, it would be interesting to see how many adults engage in those same types of behaviors.

There can be no denying how serious this issue has become. While overall traffic deaths are down nationwide, researchers have found that drivers who are distracted by cell phones or other activities are more dangerous behind the wheel even than someone who is drunk.

Utah is one of 39 states that bans texting and driving among all age groups. That is good. Unfortunately, laws are much more effective in meting out punishments than they are at changing human behavior. Changes require persuasion, public-service campaigns and constant guidance by parents and other adult leaders. A cultural change is needed. It shouldn't take the death of a grandfather and the maiming of his passenger, as in the case of Deveau in Massachusetts, to stop irresponsible behavior.

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