Documentary takes on texting-while-driving tragedies

But the Safety Council believes better laws and stricter enforcement are needed

While a new online documentary by director Werner Herzog showcases the tragedies of four driving-while-texting crashes, public safety advocates say stricter law enforcement is needed.

A new 35-minute online documentary by acclaimed director Werner Herzog describes the tragedies inflicted in four driving-while-texting crashes.

The film, One Second to the Next, focuses on the victims -- some living with traumatic injuries and others dead -- but also on two of the drivers telling their own tales of texting when the accidents occurred.

While the documentary is emotional, it also raises questions about the effectiveness of such films and other public safety education efforts at a time when texting-while-driving is on the rise. Some activists believe states need more effective anti-texting laws and better enforcement to combat the problem.

Already, 41 states have some form of law that restricts texting while driving, but many of the laws don't treat the act as a primary offense, meaning a driver has to be stopped for something else -- speeding or running a stop sign, for instance -- before the texting offense can be enforced.

"We're ultimately going to need strong laws very actively enforced," said John Ulczycki, vice president of the National Safety Council in a telephone interview. Even with well-organized national anti-texting efforts in recent years, he estimated fewer than 15% of drivers have stopped texting.

Produced by AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, the film is the latest effort to educate drivers about the dangers of texting while driving as part the It Can Wait campaign started by AT&T in 2010.

That multi-million dollar effort now includes all four major carriers and 200 other organizations and urges drivers to pledge to "never text and drive." Pledge drives reach out to community centers, schools and shopping malls while Twitter and Instagram feature celebrities talking about texting dangers.

The Herzog film debuts at a time when the It Can Wait movement says texting while driving is epidemic. In May, the group released a study saying 60% of the drivers surveyed admitted to texting while driving and never did so three years ago -- and 98% said they knew it wasn't safe.

As far back as 2009, the National Safety Council (NSC) urged that all uses of a cell phone -- watching videos, talking or texting, included-- by a driver be banned while a vehicle is in motion, a position it still holds. Since then, the vast majority of legislation in states and cities has focused on texting while driving. Meanwhile the NSC contends that driving and talking on a phone -- either holding the phone or using it hands-free -- is causing more crashes than texting because so many people talk for far longer periods than they text.

"We believe talking on cell phones leads to 20% of all crashes while texting causes 4% of crashes," Ulzycki said. The data is hard to gather, since it is often impossible for a police officer to prove texting or cell phone use was involved. The NSC derived its numbers from federal crash data that shows far fewer crashes as a result of texting or talking on a cell phone. Last year, there were about 6 million car crashes in the U.S. from all causes, of which 3.7 million resulted in injuries or deaths, the NSC said.

Based on the NSC's estimate, about 240,000 crashes a year are the result of texting while driving, although the It Can Wait website uses an apparently older number of 100,000-plus.

Ulczycki said that while the NSC prefers stronger laws and better enforcement, the wireless carriers "are really working hard on this issue.... I don't paint them as bad guys."

AT&T said Thursday that it backs state efforts to restrict texting while driving; other carriers have taken similar positions, but could not be reached for comment.

Technology has evolved to help with the problem -- somewhat. AT&T offers a DriveMode app for Android and BlackBerry AT&T customers that uses GPS to block texts and calls when a vehicle goes faster than 25 mph. Other carriers offer similar technology.

This AT&T video shows how the DriveMode app can curb texting and driving.

The NSC also agrees with a AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety finding released in June that opposes newer technologies that require the use of voice commands while driving, since that action still causes dangerous distractions.

Ulczycki believes it will take years for texting and driving behaviors to change. It took decades for Americans to start wearing seat belts in greater numbers, all as a result of tough laws passed by states in the 1980s and greater enforcement of those laws in the 1990s, he said.

"We know from other campaigns that education by itself does not change behaviors for most Americans," he said. In a similar fashion, knowing about the dangers of smoking or drunk driving didn't cause a lot of people to stop their behaviors, he said.

State laws and policies of employers helped bring about seat belt enforcement, he said. Compliance went from 14% when seat belts were first installed in cars in 1966 to 61% with the first laws in the 1980s to 86% today after a "Click it or Ticket" enforcement campaign took effect in 1995, Ulczycki said.

"Texting is very comparable, with less than 15% saying they have stopped texting since anti-texting campaigns began," he said.

People in the 1960s used to say that it would be difficult to get people to wear seat belts or stop smoking, but things have improved, he said. "It's probably going to take a long time to stop texting and driving, and took 30 to 40 years to get people to wear seat belts while driving. This effort might take longer, but we have to try."

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, said that wireless carriers are left in the position of educating drivers, especially younger ones. "Educating drivers is a good idea and better than doing nothing," he said. "It's not the carrier's place to force anything on drivers -- that's the regulator's job. It's ultimately up to all of us to either live with the situation as it is, or make the regulators change it."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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This story, "Documentary takes on texting-while-driving tragedies" was originally published by Computerworld.

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