Train Engineer in Crash Was Texting on Job

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The Metrolink commuter rail engineer involved in the deadly train collision in Chatsworth, Calif., last Friday had sent and received text messages while on duty that day, the National Transportation Safety Board said today.

However, NTSB investigators said in a statement that they are still trying to determine the timing of the messages that engineer Robert Sanchez sent and received and to compare them with the time of the crash that killed 25 people and left 135 injured. The NTSB didn't say how many texts Sanchez sent or received or provide other details.

Regardless of the timing of Sanchez's texting, there were calls today for more legislation and regulations to ban texting while operating trains or driving cars.

The California Public Utilities Commission is meeting today and is expected to ban personal use of all wireless devices by train workers to correct an omission in federal railroad regulations, according to a PUC report obtained by The Los Angeles Times. In addition, Metrolink prohibits rails workers from using cell phones on the job.

"Texting is worse than talking on a cell phone because your eyes are down," said Jack Gold, an analyst with J. Gold Associates in Northborough, Mass. in an interview. "This accident just points out the fact that a lot of people don't use common sense while texting, and more legislation forbidding it is coming, I'm sure."

California enacted a hands-free law affecting cell phone use while driving, in 2006, and the state's legislature has approved a bill that would ban texting while driving, which awaits the governor's signature. Alaska, Minnesota, New Jersey and Washington state have laws banning texting while driving, while similar legislation is pending in 16 other states, according to the Governors' Highway Safety Association.

Gold said he was amazed that more major lawsuits have not been brought against cell phone makers and wireless service providers by families of victims of accidents involving wireless devices. "Those companies are basically giving people a product that distracts them and leads to accidents," he said. When the cell phone companies argue against legislation "it's like the National Rifle Association saying you should be able to buy an armor piercing round for your assault weapon."

Gold, who has covered the wireless industry for decades, said last week's train crash will provide an incentive for more legislation affecting drivers, and if the cellular industry continues to lobby against laws, it will lose.

"They can't win this one," he said. "What politician would vote against a bill against texting while driving if they find a train engineer killed 25 people while texting?"

Gold said cellular carriers aren't hurt by such legislation, especially since they are beginning to charge flat monthly rates for data usage instead of a cost per text message. "It's hard to understand how carriers can oppose such laws," he said.

As for users, Gold said, "we all love our mobile phones, but even if you asked mobile phone users if they think it's right to text while driving, 95 percent would say no."

States have generally been well behind the curve in enacting laws to limit cell phone and texting usage because legislatures tend to lag behind new technologies, Gold said. In Massachusetts, where Gold resides, there isn't a hands-free law affecting cell phone use, despite the fact there are many savvy technology users in the state, he noted.

The CTIA, a Washington-based association that represents all the major cellular carriers, says educating the public about safe driving while using wireless devices is more effective than passing legislation, according to its Web site.

The trade group has consistently argued through the years that drivers are distracted by many factors, including using a car radio or talking to passengers, and that wireless devices do not pose a greater distraction than those. A spokesman could not be reached immediately to comment on the impact of last Friday's crash.

This story, "Train Engineer in Crash Was Texting on Job" was originally published by Computerworld.

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