Of all the distractions ensnaring drivers, texting is the one that's raising the greatest ire among safety researchers, industry critics, auto companies and federal and state regulators. Texting is taking lives, and that's provoking national outrage and promulgating new laws and safety campaigns.
"A.J. rolled through the stop sign at the entrance to our neighborhood and into the path of a garbage truck," Cline said. "He was texting his girlfriend. His accident was 100 percent preventable. My son wasn't just a number. He's not just a statistic. My son was A.J. Larsen and he meant the world to me and a lot of other people and he's no longer here because of texting while driving."
Everyone can empathize with Cline. But there are all kinds of distractions in cars, from music menus to onscreen maps. All have the potential to distract, heading you into a guardrail or through a stop sign. Is texting really that much more dangerous? And if so, why?
"A Permanent Part" of Modern Life
Safety regulators and researchers say texting while driving is indeed more of a concern than other in-car distractions. Texting is widespread, particularly among young drivers who lack experience. Texting is also more distracting than many other driver activities.
According to CTIA, The Wireless Association, people sent or received 5.9 billion text messages every day in 2010 — many of them from behind the wheel of a car. About one-eighth of all drivers reported texting while driving, according to a study on driver distraction conducted by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA).
"These devices are a permanent part of people's daily lives," says Alan Hall, a spokesman for the Ford Motor Company.
In a survey by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the majority of drivers who admitted texting were between 18 and 29. That means the biggest offenders were also less experienced drivers.
A Distraction Triple-Header
Texting while driving has a particular power to distract because it's an activity that has visual, manual and cognitive components. It requires drivers to look at something other than the road, do something other than handle the wheel and think about something other than driving the car. In other words, texting involves three categories that involve major driver distraction.
Texting takes a driver's eyes are off the road for 4-5 seconds at a time, often with multiple occurrences to read and send messages back and forth, says Thomas A. Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and an expert in driver-distraction research.
"You have 3 seconds to respond as a driver in an emergency," he says. "When you text, your eyes are off the road by 10 times that."
Dingus says simulator studies exaggerate the risks of conversations on a cell phone while driving, but that's not the case with texting. "Cell phone use has grown exponentially and the crash rate has gone down," he says. "But the concerns about texting are not overblown. Texting is far more dangerous than talking on the phone."
Distraction involves more than the act of pressing keys on a cell phone, says Bryan Reimer, associate director of the New England University Transportation Center and a research scientist at the MIT AgeLab. The content of the text can also increase a driver's risk.
A short non-emotional text message or conversation that occurs in any medium is likely to be far less distracting than a highly emotional engagement, he says.
"Whether it is communications through Facebook, text messaging, Twitter or a cellular phone call, the content of the conversation cannot be ignored," Reimer says. "Our research, as well as that of others, suggests that cognitive demands associated with conversation, thought and perhaps emotion also increase risk."
In lab simulations and field research, Reimer found that physiological changes such as an increase in heart rate and slight changes in the skin's ability to conduct electricity occur with increased workload, arousal or stress. Researchers noted these when drivers were given increasingly demanding cognitive tasks while driving.
Reimer says that combining physiological data with more traditional measures of driver behavior might help provide a clearer picture of the invisible activities — like thinking about a business deal or a relationship — that underlie distraction.
Dingus believes that texting's paramount danger is that it's a visual distraction. "You can't drive without looking at the road regardless of how high or low the cognitive demand is," he says.
Regulators Crack Down
Such research shows that texting is serious trouble for the driving public, says David Strickland, administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
There are 250 million vehicles on the road, driven by people with varying degrees of skill, Strickland says. "We lose 33,000 people a year because of highway crashes and 995 are attributed to someone with a handheld phone," he says. (Regulators haven't been able to say how many of those 995 deaths involve texting versus voice conversations.)
Mike Jackson, chairman and CEO of AutoNation, America's largest auto retailer, says he sees some of the aftermath of the texting in his company's 75 dealership body shops. "We take these crashes into our dealerships every day — cars that are rear-ended by young people texting," Jackson says.
While motorists can lessen the odds of encountering a drunk driver by staying off the roads at night, texting drivers can be hard to dodge, Jackson says. "Texting is 24/7 with young drivers," he says. "I have a feeling when the studies come in, it is going to be the greatest driver distraction ever."
State governments are reacting by making texting illegal. As of June, 34 states and the District of Columbia had enacted texting bans for all drivers. An additional seven states prohibit texting by novice drivers. In July, New York made it a primary offense and a $150 fine for drivers to use mobile devices for reading, typing and sending text messages.
Also in July, the Department of Transportation and Secretary Ray LaHood reported that two federally funded pilot programs in Syracuse, New York, and Hartford, Connecticut, had reduced cell phone use and texting behind the wheel.
The programs employed strong laws, highly visible police enforcement and high-profile public education campaigns that used the slogan "Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other." The pilot program, which cost $400,000 and produced more than 9,000 tickets in each market, will be rolled out with partial grants from DOT, allowing for greater enforcement.
Automakers Step Up
Automakers, meanwhile, know that voluntary guidelines to combat distracted driving are due to be released in the fall. They are taking a two-pronged approach to the problem of texting. One is an effort to make communication safer by converting text messages to voice messages that the system reads to the driver. That's a feature available in Ford's Sync system. Sync lets drivers reply with a voice call, or they can text back one of 15 generic responses with a couple pushes of a button.
GM's OnStar connected-driver system is testing technology that would read Facebook content and text messages to drivers, and let them use voice commands for message replies or Facebook status updates. As in the Sync system, drivers could also choose to preset a text response to incoming messages. The company hasn't decided whether to move the technology into production, says Vijay Iyer, OnStar's vice president for public relations.
The other approach to texting adopted by automakers is to explicitly warn customers that it's dangerous to take their hands off the wheel to tap out messages.
Ford has been the first automaker to support proposed legislation to ban handheld texting behind the wheel, using the slogan "Keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road." The automaker is expanding its national teenage driver education program, Driving Skills for Life, which includes a segment on the dangers of texting while driving.
BMW has its "DON'T TXT & DRIVE" campaign that's been distributed through TV, print, online and dealership channels. It's also a part of its teen driving schools.
Chevrolet sponsored Oprah Winfrey's No Phone Zone show and anti-texting pledge. But other than that, GM doesn't have an anti-texting campaign, says Scott Geisler, engineering group manager of Active Safety Driver Performance and Benefit Analysis for GM.
"Frankly, texting with a handset is so far beyond what's reasonable according to our industry guidelines, we have not done anything for the public," he says. "We did revise our employee guidelines to include a mandate not to text when they are on GM business or in a GM car because the data is clear that it is so dangerous."
GM's research into safer modes of communication for drivers is ongoing, Geisler says. "We are looking at this all the time — how we can manage the risk of distractions through applications to connectivity."
Is Technology the Fix?
There's a belief that voice systems can help drivers communicate in a safer way, Reimer says. But research on cognitive demands shows that this may not be the case, he says.
"There's still the open question as to whether technology integration allows for safer communication or encourages people to communicate more because it's easier," he says. "Any task, easy or complex, that is beyond the activity of driving can be considered as a distraction."
The topic of texting while driving is on fire. That's clear. Bans are increasingly in place and enforcement is ratcheting up. Public awareness campaigns will doubtless increase, too. But it's also clear that it will be a challenge to convince drivers — particularly young ones — to stop texting.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.