Subway Crash Re-IgnitesTexting-While-Driving Debate

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A subway collision in downtown Boston on Friday injured 49 people, including the operator of one of the trains who later admitted he was texting his girlfriend when the crash occurred.

The disaster has re-ignited the debate on texting while driving or operating other vehicles. A stream of bloggers joined the discussion, some urging more states to pass laws specifically focused on outlawing texting while driving. Ten states already have such laws.

In Boston, the head of the agency that oversees the subways was outraged over the 24-year-old operator's actions, and has since called for banning all operators from even carrying their mobile devices onto subway trains. That would expand on a previous policy banning texting while operating a train.

The CTIA, which represents hundreds of cell phone companies, has posted a series of safety statements on its Web site urging drivers not to text while driving. The CTIA also has posted statements noting how cell phones are linked to safety, with thousands of requests made every day nationwide to 911 emergency centers from accident scenes.

In an e-mail today, a CTIA spokeswoman explicitly said that the group since January has favored legislative bans on texting while driving "because of the necessary involvement of one's hands and eyes away from the task at hand.... It is unfortunate that legislation is needed, but it is one way that we can ensure people are aware of the dangers of taking their eyes off the road and hands off the wheel."

Despite its stance on texting, the CTIA remains neutral on laws banning cell phone use for talking, or "hands-free" legislation, she added. "We believe consumers can best determine what laws that they would or would not support for making phone calls," she said. The association also urges drivers to pull their vehicle over to a safe area when making a call or keeping a call brief so they can focus on driving safely. In addition, the CTIA agrees with laws that limit cellular use by inexperienced and novice drivers. The issue of texting while operating a vehicle is serious, as was evident last September when a train engineer involved in a train crash that killed 25 people was found to be texting at the time. The Boston crash showed how divided people are on the issue of texting or talking while operating a car or another vehicle.

Analysts said today that legislators need to take care in how they craft new laws. "You can't legislate common sense, and I'd say the Boston operator was an idiot," said Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group who has followed the debate for many years. "I'd say that instead of more laws against driving while talking or texting on a phone, that we should have driving while distracted laws, from any kind of distraction."

Mathias said that the use of mobile devices has led to unsafe situations that need to be addressed. "We need to pass a law, apparently, because common sense is no longer common, period." He said it is outrageous that the crash caused US$9 million in damages and will probably lead to lawsuits by injured passengers totaling many times that amount.

But another analyst, Jack Gold of J.Gold Associates, has studied the issue for years as well, and opposes more laws. He believes there are plenty of laws that govern poor driving and added, "It's hard to legislate ways to get people to act correctly."

Gold said he drives the roads in California frequently and has seen many drivers texting while holding a mobile device beneath the steering wheel -- despite a new law against doing so. "I don't think it's working," he said of the law.

But both Mathias and Gold agreed that taking away the cell phones from subway drivers completely, as called for by the transit authority chief, makes little sense because an operator might want the device to communicate to 911 in an emergency, just as any passenger would. "Taking away the phones is treating them like they are children," Mathias said.

For some, the debate revolves around the youth of many text messaging users, who are arguably less alert to the needs of others. "Safety is not taken seriously by the 'me' generation," Mathias said, adding that the use of personal devices such as music players and smartphones keeps a person's focus inward. "The cell phone trend has contributed to making us self-absorbed."

Mathias equated the current debate over texting to the debate in the 1950s and 1960s over smoking when medical evidence began to surface showing the health hazards of cigarettes. "They [cigarette companies] regarded tobacco smoking as a custom that should not be legislated," he said. "I'd equate texting while driving with smoking."

This story, "Subway Crash Re-IgnitesTexting-While-Driving Debate" was originally published by Computerworld.

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