Later this month, safety advocates, academics and transportation officials will convene in Washington, D.C., for a national summit on distracted driving. But the state of Utah is already aggressively tackling the problem — specifically the practice of texting while driving.
On Feb. 20, lawmakers in a committee room on Utah's Capitol Hill were paying little attention to the business at hand — the re-introduction of legislation to ban text messaging while driving.
But then Reggie Shaw came to the mike, and suddenly the room grew quiet.
"The lady that just spoke mentioned an accident caused in September 2006," Shaw said. "I was the one driving the car — texting while driving."
Two men were killed in that accident — both scientists and fathers. Shaw, 19, served 30 days in jail and was ordered to perform 100 hours of community service. He was the last person in Utah to receive such a light sentence. Shaw's testimony in February galvanized Utah lawmakers to pass the toughest law in the nation on texting while driving.
"If you are just caught texting while driving, it can be up to three months in jail and a $750 fine," says Brent Wilhite, program director for Zero Fatalities, the state's public campaign against distracted driving.
"And if you kill someone, it's up to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine," he says.
Other States Follow Suit
Seventeen other states have laws on texting and driving, some with penalties as light as a $20 fine.
But calls for strong action in other states are getting louder. A national poll this year showed a quarter of all drivers with cell phones admit to texting.
"When I get a text, I don't even think about it," says 19-year-old Brandi Terry. "I pick up my phone, and I respond to the text."
Terry says for many teens, responding to calls or texts in the car is a reflex. The challenge for legislators and law enforcement is how to stigmatize it — to make it just as bad as drunken driving. Utah is releasing a 15-minute video to high schools this week spotlighting the Reggie Shaw case.
The video, which shows photos of mangled cars from the wreckage, has been downloaded more than a half-million times in just over a month.
Worse Than Drunken Driving
Leila O'Dell is the wife of one of the men killed by teen driver Reggie Shaw. In the video, she talks about when she learned five months after her husband was killed that Shaw had been texting.
"I remembered being so shocked that someone could be so selfish and irresponsible and kill my husband," she says.
University of Utah psychologist David Strayer tracks eye movements while people text and try to drive. He says people really do take their eyes off the road — often for the same amount of time it takes to drive the length of a football field. Imagine doing that blind. And the cognitive distraction is part of what makes it so dangerous.
"In terms of accident risk, you're more likely to be hit by someone who's text messaging than someone who's drunk," Strayer says. "And that's a pretty alarming statistic."
In fact, his research shows that texting results in impairment levels double that of drunken driving.
Learning To Drive Without Texting
In the university's simulated driving laboratory, research assistant Sarah Bell sits in what looks like a giant video game. On a screen in front of her, animated cars and trucks whiz by in the lane next to her. As she texts and drives, the car in front randomly hits the brakes.
"I just about had a heart attack," Bell says. "I was looking at my phone and I didn't see the car brake, and I almost killed both of us."
Her speed is erratic and she sometimes swerves — until she finally slams into the car in front of her. Once that happens, the word "CRASH," in giant letters, blinks on the screen.
After years of research, Strayer is heartened now to see the issue being taken seriously.
Federal legislation is pending to pressure states into prohibiting drivers from texting while driving — or risk losing a quarter of their yearly federal highway funding.
"When it becomes stigmatized and you have the legislation and education and science all together as a package, you'll change people's behavior," Strayer says. "And until you have that package in place, you're not going to see systematic changes in driver behavior."