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Texting on road: R U Crazy?

Times Staff Writer

Can you translate 9687 943357? Probably not, especially if you are over 40 years old.

It’s the sequence of numbers you press on a cellphone to spell out Your Wheels in a text message.

Now imagine doing that while you are at the wheel of a 4,000-pound sport utility vehicle, moving 100 feet per second on a busy urban freeway with a load of teenagers having a hormone-induced gabfest.

These are the conditions that have contributed to a string of fatal accidents across the nation involving teenagers trying to send text messages while driving.

Only last week, five teenagers were killed in an SUV in Canandaigua, N.Y., while text messages were moving back and forth on a 17-year-old driver’s cellphone moments before the vehicle slammed head-on into a truck. The driver was a cheerleader on a team that won a national championship earlier this year.

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“The records indicate her phone was in use,” Ontario County Sheriff Phil Povero told the Associated Press. It is a suspected cause of the crash, which remains under investigation in western New York.

Text messaging is wildly popular among teenagers, as any parent who pays for a teenager’s cellphone knows.

About 7,000 times per second, text messages are flying across the nation, many of them from cellphone to cellphone, according to phone industry figures. It seems like one of the most impractical ways to communicate ever to evolve, ranking somewhere between bee dances and smoke signals.

Sending a text requires locating the appropriate letter associated with one of eight numerical keys on a cellphone, repeatedly pushing the key until the correct letter appears and calling up a complicated punctuation menu.

Doing that while driving represents a quantum leap over the distraction that a mere cellphone conversation creates.

In an ordinary cellphone call, the driver’s attention is divided between the road and the person on the other end of the conversation. A text message also divides attention, but adds the requirement of eyes on the telephone display and fingers moving across a keypad for many moments. But people still try to do that.

“It takes distraction to a new level,” said Laurette Stiles, vice president for strategic resources at State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., the largest insurer in California.

In recent years, a Denver teenager mowed down a cyclist while text messaging. A Swiss woman killed two police officers and seriously injured two others while text messaging in her car traveling 105 mph. The insanity has even affected the island culture: A Honolulu man ran head-on into a truck while sending a text message.

These accidents were not flukes, though nobody can say how many fatal accidents can be directly linked to text messaging. It may not cause large numbers of deaths, but highway safety has few magic bullets and every life saved is important.

Unfortunately, teenagers engage in such risky behavior frequently.

A recent survey by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm found that 89% of teenagers say it is common to see their friends use a cellphone while driving. About half say they regularly drive while talking on the cellphone.

“The reality today is that teenagers are used to handling multiple distractions,” Stiles said. “They talk on the phone while working on a computer. They watch television while doing their homework. They are accustomed to thinking they can do more than one thing at a time.”

In the worst possible scenario, you could imagine five teenagers shouting and smoking marijuana while the driver is text messaging and the CD player is pounding.

Is that farfetched? Not according to the survey. About one-third of teenagers report seeing their friends smoking pot while driving with other teens in the car.

“Our research shows that distracted driving is a much more serious problem than we realized,” Stiles said. “We are just beginning to realize the extent of it.”

What would help? The survey shows that about two-thirds say they would modify their phone behavior if it were illegal and they would risk losing their license.

State Farm is not specifically backing a law that would ban text messaging or cellphone use while driving.. That’s unfortunate, because it’s absurd for adults to be text messaging also.

But the company, as do other insurers, approves of graduated licensing for younger drivers that puts limits on cellphone use, occupants and hours of operation.

Washington is the only state to currently ban text messaging while driving. Legislation is pending in several other states, including California. Surprisingly, at least four states have turned it down.

In late April, the state Senate approved a bill by Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) that would levy a $50 fine on drivers under 18 using any electronic communication device. The measure passed by 21 to 14 in the Senate. Simitian is optimistic about its chances in the Assembly later this summer.

The State Farm survey shows that most teenagers also listen to advice given by their parents. So an important step is for adults to set an example by ending their own risky driving behavior.

“Should adults be doing it? No,” Simitian said.

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com


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