Suddenly, those drivers talking on their cellphones seem relatively harmless, at least when compared to drivers who are staring at their cellphones, texting. An estimated 20 percent of drivers are sending or receiving text messages while behind the wheel, according to a Nationwide Insurance study. And, according to another poll, that number skyrockets to 66 percent when drivers 18 to 24 are isolated. The practice, especially popular among young people, is exacting a deadly toll.
No one knows how many vehicular crashes are related to drivers distracted by text messaging, but anecdotal evidence is mounting. A fiery crash made headlines in June when five female friends died in a collision with a tractor trailer just a week after graduating from their suburban Rochester, N.Y., high school. Police discovered the teenage driver had been texting moments before the crash. Similar accidents are happening with increasingly regularity nationwide.
Now, at least 16 states are considering legislation that would outlaw or restrict the practice. "Certainly, texting is the issue du jour this year in the legislatures," says Matt Sundeen of the National Conference of State Legislatures. That means another fight over the role of government in regulating cellphone use, but it's one that proponents of new laws expect to win. Indeed, a Harris Interactive Poll from August shows 9 out of 10 American adults believe that sending text messages or E-mails while driving is "distracting, dangerous, and should be outlawed."
Only two states expressly prohibit texting while driving. Washington banned the practice last May, and New Jersey followed suit in November. Similar bills are now in the works in Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Sundeen cites two reasons for the proposed legislation: the growing sophistication of cellphones that are increasingly catered to texting and, perhaps more important, the growing number of "high-profile accidents—and those always tend to translate into legislation."
In Iowa, Democratic Rep. McKinley Bailey proposed a texting ban that would target only beginning drivers, ages 16 and 17. He wrote the bill because of several text-related accidents after the last legislative session ended. Not everyone was for it. The ACLU called it discriminatory against young people, and Bailey received some phone calls from people who saw the ban as "an erosion of freedom," he says. Some Republicans are also trying to muster opposition. But, he notes, "overall, the response was positive." In fact, party leaders liked it so well that they're rewriting the bill to include a texting ban on drivers of all ages.
Experts say anti-texting laws are following on the heels of a wave of more general bans on the use of cellphones while driving. Five states already prohibit all drivers from using hand-held phones, and 24 more have considered similar legislation. Several states have such restrictions for younger drivers.