Danger: Drivers who type on their Treo or Blackberry
TEXT-MESSAGING A RISING CAUSE OF CAR ACCIDENTS
By Kimra McPherson
Still complaining about drivers talking on their cell phones?
That's nothing compared with the ones who are typing.
From teenagers and twentysomethings text-messaging friends from their Sidekicks and Razrs to tech execs who can't step away from the ``CrackBerry,'' it's hard for some to resist the urge to e-mail and text on the road.
``I know it's dangerous and I shouldn't,'' said Shannon Gonzalez, a San Jose State University freshman who said she occasionally pulls out her phone to send messages at red lights. ``But I do it anyway.''
Law enforcement officials and others say it might be just the beginning, as high-tech cell phones and other handheld devices tempt bored commuters with games, videos and Web browsers.
Texting in the car ``is a relatively recent development,'' said state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who wrote the hands-free phone bill signed into law last month. It's not covered by the new law, and its omission was a strategic move on his part: Simitian said he wanted to keep focused on hands-free talking so the bill would pass.
But he knows it's a growing danger -- and not just because of teens texting with their friends from the driver's seat. It's now possible to send text messages to Google to get directions, to ``American Idol'' to vote for a contestant and at least one Bay Area radio station to request a song. Many professionals stay tethered to the office with their ever-present BlackBerrys -- even on the road.
``We're all guilty,'' said Pierre Khawand, the founder of People-OntheGo, a San Francisco-based company that advises professionals on how to manage their e-mail and electronic devices.
Sending a text message on a phone is a lot like dialing: Letters are assigned to the number keys, and users hit the keys multiple times until they reach the letter they want to type. Other devices, including Sidekicks and Treos, have full keyboards.
In one of Khawand's workshops, he asks BlackBerry users how often they use e-mail while driving, and offers multiple-choice answers: never, only at red lights, at red lights and in traffic jams, or on the highway ``but only going slowly in the right lane.''
That last one was initially included for laughs, Khawand said. But now, two to three people in a workshop of 15 to 20 will admit to e-mailing on the freeway.
Simitian said someone in the governor's office asked him almost immediately if his bill meant no more e-mailing in the car.
``We've got folks who couldn't get through a day without their BlackBerry,'' Simitian said.
What makes texting and e-mailing on the road especially dangerous is that all but the most skilled texters have to look down at their screens to see what they're typing. A study released earlier this year by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that punching in numbers or letters on a cell phone or other handheld device tripled a driver's risk of a crash or near-crash because they were looking at the phone, not the traffic.
``It's another challenge for drivers, another temptation,'' said Sgt. Les Bishop of the California Highway Patrol.
The CHP only recently started tracking cell phones as a contributing factor in crashes, Bishop said, and doesn't yet break out text messaging as a separate category.
Reports of crashes caused by texting are scattered nationwide -- possibly, law enforcement officials say, because drivers don't always fess up. But in one case, a Colorado teen served nine days in jail after he struck and killed a bicyclist with his car while texting in November 2005. In another, a 26-year-old Tennessee man flipped his pickup truck and died while attempting to send a text message in March 2005.
And the news isn't good from countries where texting is more prevalent: England, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Switzerland, among others, have reported fatal crashes involving text-messaging drivers.
``It comes down to responsibility by people who are driving,'' Bishop said. ``They need to realize that they're potentially in a deadly weapon.''
Khawand said he understands the impulse to text from the road -- in an instant-gratification culture, many are afraid that missing one crucial text message or e-mail will mean they're out of the loop. But it can be dangerous way to multitask, he said.
``In one second, it's possible to get into an accident,'' he said, ``and then be very unproductive for a while.''