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May 20, 2009

Driving While Texting Still Popular Despite Bans: Survey

By Amy Tierney, TMCnet Web Editor

Despite the dangers of text messaging while driving and outright bans in some states, one in four U.S. drivers practice the behavior, a new survey found.
The new study, commissioned on behalf of Vlingo, a Cambridge, Massachusetts maker of speech-recognition technology for mobile phones, found that 26 percent of people admitted they text behind the wheel. That’s similar to last year’s survey, which found that 28 percent drive while texting.

Not surprising, the behavior varies by age. Nearly 60 percent of people 16 to 19—the cohort of drivers with the least amount of driving experience—said they text while driving, compared to 49 percent of people 20 to 29. Just 13 percent of people over 50 admitted texting and driving.
“If we think the problem is bad today, it’s only going to get worse,” Dave Grannan, CEO of Vlingo told TMC (News - Alert). “We are going to have to come up with technology solutions that make using text messaging safe while in the car.”
Of the 4,816 online participants, 83 percent said they believe the practice should be illegal, the survey found.
Texting while driving has caught the attention of lawmakers in several states as a safety issue. Studies have shown that cell phones and other mobile devices create distractions for drivers, leading to serious accidents, or even fatalities. Even cell phone companies like Verizon (News - Alert) Wireless are supporting states’ efforts to ban texting-and driving. For example, the company supported a California law, which requires drivers to use hands-free devices, and also bans texting while driving.
Text-messaging likely played a role in the tragic accident in Los Angeles last fall in which a commuter train collided with a Union Pacific freighter, killing 25 people. The National Transportation Safety Board said a Metrolink engineer driving the commuter train sent a text message 22 seconds before the crash, according to a CNN report. The engineer, Robert Sanchez, was among those who died in the Sept. 12 accident in a northwest Los Angeles suburb.
And this month, nearly 50 people were injured when a Boston trolley operator crashed into a stopped trolley near Government Center Station. The operator, who admitted sending a text message shortly before the accident, was later fired, the Boston Globe reports. Since then, the MBTA implemented a ban on cell phone use by operators.
Already, seven states and the District of Columbia have laws that ban people from sending text messages while operating a vehicle, according to Vlingo. Drivers in Tennessee are among the worst offenders, with 42 percent of respondents admitting to driving while texting.  New Jersey, Alabama, Idaho and Oklahoma rounded out the top five worst offending states. Meanwhile, Arizona, Vermont, Rhode Island, Ohio and Michigan had the best records, Vlingo said.
While more states are expected to enact similar legislation, laws are only one part of the solution, Grannan said.
“Laws are not going to change human behavior. People are going to do it anyway,” Grannan said of driving while texting. “But the benefit of these laws is to increase public awareness. We have to deliver technology solutions to make it safe.”
For example, Vlingo recently announced a new version of its mobile speech application. Version 3.0 brings an enhanced text-to-speech read-back feature for hands-free confirmation of what was said, and the chance for users to speak action requests, such as “send.”
Text messaging isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s become a mainstream form of communication. Nearly 60 percent of people surveyed said they use their phones to text. Teens remain the largest users of text messaging, with 94 percent saying they use the feature and 87 percent of people in their 20s. But usage also increased for older age groups. Among people in their 40s, usage jumped from 56 percent in 2008 to 64 percent this year and from 38 percent to 46 percent for users in their 50s, the survey found.

Edited by Amy Tierney

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