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Texting while driving is our dirty secret

SCOTT KEELER and JOHN CORBITT   |  Times photo illustration
About 35 percent of drivers feel less safe than they did five years ago, a new study by AAA found. Many cite texting.

SCOTT KEELER and JOHN CORBITT | Times photo illustration About 35 percent of drivers feel less safe than they did five years ago, a new study by AAA found. Many cite texting.

You do it. It's your dirty secret.

You socialize at 67 mph, via cell phone text message or e-mail, and you know well the sound of the rumble strip. If you're lucky, you've never caused a collision, but you have most definitely contributed to the growing American asphalt anxiety.

We're talking to you, Samantha McNamara.

She's a 17-year-old senior at Gibbs High School who texts an estimated 70 percent of the time she's driving:

"I was on my way home from work. I got this text message (boyfriend) and I wasn't paying attention because I was so focused on this text and I didn't realize there were two cops behind me.

"They came to my window, asking me all these questions, thinking I'm a drunk driver. 'Why are you swerving? Are you unfamiliar with the area?' And I was like 'No, I got a text message.' "

No wonder 35 percent of motorists feel less safe than they did five years ago, a new study by AAA has found.

Eighty percent of motorists say distracted driving is a "very serious threat to their safety," and more than half acknowledge that reading, e-mailing or texting while driving increases their chances of having an accident, according to the survey released Wednesday by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Up step the politicians. Wednesday, state and federal lawmakers introduced legislation to ban texting while driving. A bill in the Senate would require states to ban texting or risk losing federal highway money. Fourteen states already outlaw the practice, but in Florida, proposals have failed the past two years.

All this comes as evidence of the dangers of distracted drivers continues to mount.

In 6-year-old data withheld until last week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, researchers estimated that cell phone-using motorists contributed to around 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents in 2002, and that they were as likely to cause a crash as someone with a DUI-worthy blood alcohol level of 0.08.

Translated, the joker in front of you going to town on his cell phone while his SUV tangos through traffic might as well be holding a Budweiser.

A recent study (PDF) by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute concluded that drivers of heavy trucks were 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash if texting, and, for all drivers, reaching for an electronic device increased the likelihood of an accident sixfold.

The studies suggest that you take your eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds while composing a text. At 55 mph, you've blindly covered the length of a football field in the time it takes to ask your wife whether you should pick up some milk.

Let us refer to this as the Text Warp. You're coming off the Howard Frankland into Tampa and (bzzzzzzzzt ... bzzzzzzzzt) your buddy wants to meet for beers.

Yeah!! Where? (And the question mark is so hard to find that it requires hitting 1 nine times.)

You look up and you're crossing West Shore Boulevard.

Katelyn Blaylock, a Freedom High School student, was ripping off a cell message in late May when she Text Warped into a Tampa police patrol car.

Caroline Schwab came close.

The 42-year-old IT specialist was zipping down the Courtney Campbell causeway and texting, "be there in 20 minutes." When she looked up, she saw a red van stopped at a light. She slammed on her brakes, swerved, caught her breath and made a vow: never again.

Now she has a default message to send to those who pepper her with texts on the road.

"No texting/talking while driving. I had too close of a call. Will chat later."

Maybe that's what it takes to open our eyes, the close calls.

Take Courtney Schoenfeld, a manager at Tampa's Hot Buckles. She was heading to a birthday lunch for her son Max in June, singing along with her two kids to Kids Place Live on XM, when a woman in an SUV texted into her lane. Courtney now texts only at stoplights.

"If you think about it, those two minutes you wait to text could prevent you from losing a much larger period, if not all, of your time," she said.

So why don't we all stop?

"There is a temptation. You want to communicate with people," says Shere Schiller, a 58-year-old mother of three. "We've just become this warp-speed society."

The perps should be easy to spot.

Says Greg Albers of Clearwater Beach: "If you see somebody going really slowly, more often than not when you get up beside them, you'll see they're doing something on the phone."

Does he find himself using the phone in the car?

"Guilty."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds, reporter Kim Wilmath and correspondent Kelly Price contributed to this report.

Texting while driving is our dirty secret 07/29/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 1:23pm]
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