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October 02, 2008

Feds Cite Text-Messaging in Fatal Los Angeles Train Crash; IT Insiders Warned of Dangers

By Michael Dinan, TMCnet Editor

As federal authorities confirm the role that text-messaging likely played in the tragic accident in Los Angeles last month that saw a commuter train collide with a Union Pacific freighter, killing 25 people, focus among safety and transportation officials, legislators and travelers is turning to regulations of the distracting technology’s use.

The National Transportation Safety Board this week said that a Metrolink engineer driving the commuter train sent a text message about 22 seconds before the crash. The engineer, Robert Sanchez, was among those who perished Sept. 12 during the Friday rush hour in a northwest Los Angeles suburb.
Some have said that safety technology would have prevented the crash – claims that helped lead the Senate last night to pass a rail safety reform bill that would give $13 billion to Amtrak over five years. It isn’t clear if President Bush will sign the bill, which adds 200 new safety inspectors and requires technology be installed by 2015 that can slow a train that runs a red light or jumps off track.
Whether or not he does, the dangers of text-messaging among automobile drivers has been a hot topic among IT insiders for years, and particularly the past several months, as the technology becomes increasingly popular among mobile device users.
According to one recent report, mobile phone users are using text messaging as a mainstream communication vehicle, a trend that industry insiders raises safety concerns about using the technology while driving.
About 55 percent of consumers now use text messaging and 42 percent use their mobile phones to text as much or more than they do to make calls, according to the report from Common Knowledge Research Services. The report, “Consumer Text Messaging Habits,” was commissioned by the Vlingo Corporation, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based wireless data services company. Vlingo is gaining traction in the communications market with its flagship offering, a free, Web-based speech recognition service for mobile devices that allows users to send text messages or check e-mail simply by speaking into their phones.
Vlingo’s chief executive officer, Dave Grannan, told TMC (News - Alert) during an interview in May that the report shows that government officials will need to draft public policy to ensure that texting is done safely.
“Text messaging has become an integral part of how younger generations communicate, and right now their behavior and attitudes suggest that 50 percent will be driving and texting,” Grannan said. “This problem is only going to get worse and we need to develop public policies and technologies to address this challenge.”
The report is based on a survey of 4,820 online opinion panel members, aged 13 and older, living in the continental United States. The sample was matched to U.S. Census proportions on gender, age and ethnicity and included approximately 100 respondents from each of the 48 contiguous U.S. states, according to Vlingo.
Concerns about texting while driving may be linked to rapidly growing concerns about talking on cell phones while driving.
One Harvard Center for Risk Analysis study that shows 2,600 people are killed each year from driver distraction incidents stemming from cell phone use. The statistic prompted one San Francisco-based company that deals in hands-free head sets for office environments today to offer a free set to those who are ticketed for cell phone use while driving.
A handful of states have laws that regulate cell phone use for drivers, while others have laws in place already that include more general bans on distracting activity while operating a motor vehicle.
According to Vlingo, 23 states today are considering legislation to ban driving while texting.
According to the report, 28 percent admit to driving while texting, or “DWT.” Among respondents, 78 percent believe DWT should be illegal, 85 percent of respondents say they would not DWT if it were illegal, 85 percent of teens and young adults (those 13-29) send text messages, and just over 50 percent of those ages 16-29 admit to DWT.
Driving accidents are the nation’s number one killer of teenagers, according to the NTSB.
The full Vlingo report can be downloaded at
Meanwhile, the NTSB already has said that the brakes on the Metrolink train were not applied before the collision. The federal agency also determined that stop signals at the scene were working properly, said Kitty Higgins, an NTSB member assigned to the investigation, according to reports.
Yesterday, the NTSB said that 46-year-old Sanchez sent a text message at 4:22:01 p.m. on Sept. 12, citing information on his cell phone activity that the safety board subpoenaed from his service provider. The preliminary estimate of the time for the head-on collision is 4:22:23 p.m., the NTSB said, citing Union Pacific train’s onboard recorders.
Sanchez last received a text message at 4:21:03 p.m., the NTSB said.
Don’t forget to check out TMCnet’s White Paper Library, which provides a selection of in-depth information on relevant topics affecting the IP Communications industry. The library offers white papers, case studies and other documents which are free to registered users. Today’s featured white paper is The Compelling ROI Benefits of Contact Center Quality and Performance Management Technologies, brought to you by Voice Print International (News - Alert).

Michael Dinan is a contributing editor for TMCnet, covering news in the IP communications, call center and customer relationship management industries. To read more of Michael’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Michael Dinan

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