Study Finds Link Between Text Messaging, Truck Crashes

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Researchers studying the effect of personal technology on roadway safety are finding ample reason to worry about people who send text messages while behind the wheel.

According to an analysis by Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute, texting truckers are 23 times as likely as their non-texting counterparts to be involved in a crash or a near miss. Researchers analyzed commercial trucking data from 2004 to 2007 that involved 203 truckers and 3 million miles of driving.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration awarded a $300,000 contract to Virginia Tech to do the study. Trucks were fitted with video cameras that captured the drivers' faces in the six seconds leading up to and during a crash or a near miss. The video showed texting to be an extremely high-risk behavior, mainly because it is associated with drivers taking their eyes off the road.

"In 4.6 out of the six seconds, they weren't looking at the road. They were looking at the device," said Rich Hanowski, director of the institute's Center for Truck and Bus Safety. "Anything over two seconds is dangerous."

Virginia Tech examined 4,452 "safety-critical events," including 21 crashes, 197 near crashes and about 4,200 other events, including unintentional lane changes.

Last year, 37,200 people were killed on U.S. roadways, and about 11 percent of those deaths involved large trucks, according to government transportation data.

Authorities have identified texting as a factor in some recent high-profile transportation accidents. In April, the driver of an 18-wheeler admitted to texting minutes before slamming into a school bus in Florida, killing a student onboard. And a Boston transit worker, now under indictment, was allegedly texting when a trolley he was driving rear-ended another, injuring dozens. The incident led the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority to prohibit train and bus operators from using "personal electronic devices" while working.

This month, Metro toughened its policy against texting by train or bus operators after the release of a video showing a Metrorail operator apparently texting on a moving train. Under Metro's new policy, an operator caught using a mobile communication device will be dismissed, the agency said.

In announcing the change, Metro officials cited the commuter rail crash in Southern California that killed 25 people in September. Investigators have said the driver, who died in the crash, had sent a text message before the collision.

Hanowski said the trucker study, which was delivered to the agency last week, was the largest of its kind in the world. He said the video analysis was the first to quantify the extent to which texting drivers are taking their eyes off the road.

He said 14 states, including Virginia, and the District of Columbia have driver-texting bans in place or scheduled to become effective this year. Maryland's ban takes effect Oct. 1.

"The take-away issue here is this is a driver behavior issue," Hanowski said. "It's not isolated to truck drivers."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has taken part in studies that pointed to the dangers of cellphone-related distractions. However, a spokesman said the agency had no safety studies underway that specifically examine text messaging by noncommercial drivers, although some are under consideration.

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