In our opinion: Texting while driving often proves to be a deadly combination

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 5 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Sept. 20, 2011 file photo, a phone is held in a car in Brunswick, Maine. Texting while driving increased 50 percent last year and two out of 10 drivers say they've sent text messages or emails while behind the wheel despite a rush by states to ban the practice, the National Traffic Safety Administration said Thursday. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach, File)

Pat Wellenbach, AP

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The unthinkable happened Sunday night in Vernal. A 15-year-old boy, walking alongside the road with his friend, was struck from behind and killed by a pickup truck; thrown 40 feet through the air while his friend, who was not hurt, watched helplessly. Police believe the driver was texting at the time.

Laws against such behavior come in handy when judges and juries look for appropriate punishments, but they do little to deter distracted drivers. That will require a cultural change, something akin to what has made smoking a ridiculous pass time in the eyes of many or drunk driving a social taboo, rather than the comedic punch line it was a generation or two ago. Getting there will not be easy, but the price of not getting there is far too steep.

Of all the possible distractions behind the wheel, texting is the most disturbing. The federal government's own web site on distracted driving (distraction.gov) says this is "because text messaging requires visual, manual, and cognitive attention from the driver..." Plenty of other distractions are dangerous and should be avoided. Most of these, however, do not occupy so many senses at once.

The site also reports that in 2010, 3,092 people were killed in accidents in which a driver was distracted, and an estimated additional 416,000 people were injured. At a time when deaths from drunk driving, and overall highway fatalities, are down, texting has become a growing impediment to safe roadways.

One big way to make things better is to train young people to speak up. A survey by State Farm and Harris Interactive found that when a teenager speaks up and confronts a driver who is texting, the behavior stops 84 percent of the time. And yet this is a problem that seems to defy logic, as even the best of young people often feel they can handle such behavior at certain times. The same survey found that about one-third of the teens who said they had spoken up against texting admitted to texting and driving themselves.

Studies show that in the 4.6 seconds it takes on average to read or send a text, a person driving 55 mph can travel the length of a football field. During that time they are vulnerable to any changes in traffic patterns and susceptible to veering off course without their knowledge. The results can be devastating and irreparable.

Examples abound in the news. A Florida couple last month settled a lawsuit against a teenager for $500,000. The husband and wife each lost a leg when the texting driver struck them while riding their motorcycle. The case was unusual in that the couple tried to make the person on the other end of the text liable, as well, arguing that she should have known the person she was texting was also driving. A judge ruled against that attempt, but the couple has since appealed.

Of all the bad driving offenses, texting is among the easiest to prove. Your cell phone keeps a record that doesn't lie. Your words, and the exact time they were sent, will stand against you.

The loss of a 15-year-old Vernal boy who had his entire life ahead of him ought to be enough to stun everyone into putting their phones aside while they drive. It won't be, unfortunately. We applaud all public-service efforts to educate people about how dangerous this practice is. The point cannot be made forcefully enough.

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