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Electronic gadgets make us dangerously disconnected

Davin Dyslin broke six ribs, his nose and a bone in his back, then slipped into a coma for days.

He was driving 45 mph that night in March 2007, when he slammed into the back of a fuel tanker. The last thing he remembered was his cell phone ringing, he told a crash investigator.

"Now I just look at my phone at red lights," said Dyslin, 18.

With a buzz, a ring or a song, cell phones, MP3 players and other electronic devices divert us into a sphere of oblivion. We walk, heads down, across intersections, through malls, on jogging trails, eyes on 2-inch by 2-inch screens. We prop them on steering wheels, take them to dinner, cradle them in grocery stores or on treadmills.

In all our connectedness, we're disconnecting — sometimes fatally.

A few examples from recent weeks:

• Polk County teen Michael Cepeda died after he was hit by a Buick while crossing the street and text-messaging.

• Twenty-five people died and 113 were injured when a commuter train collided head-on with a freight train outside Los Angeles. Twenty-two seconds before the crash, the conductor sent a text message. He never applied the brakes.

• Michael Nolan, 44, took his final step into traffic at Florida Avenue carrying a portable CD player.

The devices drain brain power. Experts say so.

Whether cell phone, Blackberry or iPod, they convert otherwise responsible drivers into moving instruments of death.

Marcel Just, a neurologist and director of Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, studied brain activity in drivers.

Simply hearing a human voice speak in sentences reduces driving-related brain activity by 40 percent, according to his study.

Add to that the logistical challenges of messing with a cell phone and, he said, the problem is obviously compounded.

"You don't need to do a brain imaging study to know that if you don't watch the road ahead of you, that's extremely dangerous," he said.

"Your mind can only do so much at one time."

Cell phone use is lucrative, and getting more so. Total wireless revenue was $143.7-billion in the 12 months ending in June, according to CTIA, the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications.

About 600-billion text messages were sent in the 12 months leading up to June — more than 10 times as many as three years earlier.

The evidence is everywhere.

A Times reporter on a six-minute walk across the University of Tampa campus saw nine people walking and talking, or walking and texting. Others palmed their cells at-the-ready as they traveled.

They are familiar sights on Boulevard Street, barely looking up as they trust drivers to stop at crosswalks.

Freshman Meryl Thixton, 19, moved across the road with headphones clipped to her ears, listening to her music player while sending text messages on her open cell phone.

Click-click-click, her thumbs mashed. Michael Buble sang his version of Can't Buy Me Love as she made her way across campus.

Head bowed, she didn't hear a stranger approaching her, yelling at her, until the two nearly collided.

"Can you hear me?" she was asked.

Thixton nodded and smiled.

She started driving six months ago. She hates the commuter parking lot and needed to text-vent to a friend. She texts a lot these days.

"I've heard a lot of people say it gives you something to do where you don't feel so alone when you're walking alone," Thixton said. "I can admit to that."

But she doesn't text while driving, she says: "It's too dangerous!"

Indeed, researchers at Clemson University's psychology department stuck drivers in a simulator and asked them to text or use their iPods. They found drivers left their lanes 10 percent more often when engaged with the devices.

That's why cell phones are Jim Messer's pet peeve.

Ever since the Tallahassee lawyer was run off the road by an anonymous woman punching buttons from behind her steering wheel, Messer has been on a crusade to illegalize cell phone use behind the wheel in Florida.

He thinks texting is even more dangerous than talking on a cell phone.

"People don't just essentially climb into a cell phone, which is what people do when they are on a cell phone," Messer said.

"But they absolutely divert their eyes from the roadway in front of them down to a 2- by 2-inch screen in front of them."

Such legislation struggles to emerge from capitols populated by lawmakers and lobbyists who roam halls with their eyes on Blackberries, as they collide and bounce off one another like pin-balls.

A bill last year forbidding Florida drivers under 18 from talking on cell phones while behind the wheel stalled after the telecommunications lobby protested, noting that perhaps it didn't go far enough.

If you're banning cell phone use in the car, their logic went, why not ban lipstick application, hamburger eating and other similarly distracting road behaviors?

Five states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands have laws prohibiting driving while talking on hand-held phones. Six banned texting and driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. And 18 restrict cell phone use by new drivers.

In Florida, no one keeps regular records on the role cell phones play in crashes.

Instead, such incidents get grouped in the category of crashes caused by "distracted driving," of which there were 2,034 last year, according to Florida Highway Patrol.

In 2003, that number was 1,796, and a one-time study found in 20 percent of those crashes, the driver was reported to be "talking or listening on a cell phone."

Davin Dyslin, the 18-year-old crash victim, told detectives two weeks after his accident that he had just left work, forgot to clock out, and was about to return when his cell phone rang. He'd been texting earlier in the drive.

He remembered looking down.

Investigators said he never hit the brakes.

These days, Dyslin uses a hands-free device in the car. And he says he doesn't text and drive unless he's at a red light.

His mom reminds him how dangerous a phone can be.

"She's always on my case about it," he said. "Always, always."

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or 813-226-3383.

Electronic gadgets make us dangerously disconnected 10/13/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 13, 2008 1:17pm]

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