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Publication Date: 09/1/2009
Archive >  September 2009 Issue >  Tech-Op-Ed > 

Texting Takes a Toll
Walter Salm, Editor
Everywhere we look we see people with cell phones glued to their ears and their mouths are working rapidly. An increasing number of these cell phone users have Bluetooth earpiece headsets (myself included). Problem with the Bluetooth is that you can be in the midst of a phone call and other people think you're talking to them, especially if you tend to have a loud telephone voice, as I do. The Bluetooth earpiece has become so much a part of my existence, that I tend to forget that I'm even wearing it. This factoid came home to roost when I was told to remove it by a Blackjack dealer in Las Vegas.

Most of the people not using headsets, but who have the phone firmly glued to their heads seem to be women, and worse, they are usually behind the wheel of a car. I know this sounds sexist, but this has been my personal observation. Many states now have laws on the books making it illegal to use a cell while driving, unless a hands-free device is used. Enforcing these laws becomes difficult, and in many cases the only way an offender is caught is when (not if, but when) they have an accident.

Even wearing a headset doesn't totally remove the distraction. One day I was having an animated conversation with my son while wearing a headset and driving my 40-foot Diesel coach plus tow car behind it, and because of the phone call, I missed an important turnoff when on the I-610 bypass around Houston. I was lucky enough to find a truck turnaround loop at the next exit, but the very act of being on the phone was distracting to me, headset and all. This can get really dicey with all the business calls I take while driving, and I have no way of taking notes, and if I don't write it down, I'll forget the call details for sure!

To make matters worse, texting has become such an overwhelming fad today that many phone users are texting while driving. This has to represent the absolute height of insanity, but they do it, and not surprisingly, they cause accidents. Fortunately, I have not succumbed to this craze; it's really for people who have free time on their hands and have no other outlet for their writing. Some states are waking up to the enormous accident risk created by texting while driving. Alaska and Utah now have some tough penalties on the books — as much as 15 years in prison if a person texting causes a highway fatality. It's no longer a misdemeanor there; it's now a felony. Trouble is, it takes a spectacular and deadly accident or more to move state legislators to action. In Utah, two rocket scientists on their way to work were killed by a 19-year-old college student who was texting his girl friend. Proving culpability is another matter; in this case, the perp was so overcome by guilt that he came forward and confessed.

Other highway deaths have been caused by other electronic distractions. One really smart fellow was watching a movie on a DVD player perched on the dashboard when he killed two people. States have started to equate texting with drunk driving.

The problem today is that we have too many potential distractions in the car, and most of them are electronic. I am just as guilty of being distracted, but I minimize this by always wearing my Bluetooth, and I try not to get too involved with a Mets baseball game or some of my favorite music, or old time radio coming in on the XM satellite receiver. These "distractions" supposedly help to relieve the highway boredom that often sets in on long trips. And that's why satellite radio presents the driver with hundreds of channels to choose from.

But texting while driving? Alaska and Utah have put this on the same page as drunk driving and can be expected to be hard on guilty parties. But proving it is another matter. Fortunately, the police have access to telephone records, so a denial just won't stand up in court. It's all part of today's technology and the fact that we have so much electronic record storage space available. Now it's time for the other 48 states to get on board, before someone else is killed by a texting highway idiot.  

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