By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009
It is probably safe to assume that the last three things Tiffany DeGroft thought of that cloudy October morning were her boyfriend, her cellphone and the picket fence that would cause her death.
She spent the last moments of her life swapping text messages with him as she drove down Braddock Road in Centreville, police said. He was upset. He had been carded by a store clerk when he went to buy cigarettes. His last text message read: "Why the [expletive] aren't you answering me now?"
About that moment, the road curved right, and DeGroft's 2002 Jaguar went straight. The car crossed the center line and went into the oncoming lane. DeGroft apparently looked up but hit the brakes too late, plowing through trees, hitting a picket fence and smashing into a shed. Investigators said a piece of fence shattered the window and killed her.
"We found the phone on the floorboard in the open position," said James Banachoski, a Fairfax County detective who handles investigations of fatal traffic accidents. "I suspect she was actually reading the text."
"Distracted driving" is becoming a cause celebre, with more states banning texting and some legislators pondering whether to bar cellphone use by drivers outright. The District and six states require hands-free devices. Texting has been banned in the District and 17 states, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he will convene a meeting Sept. 30 to formulate "concrete steps . . . to make drivers think twice about taking their eyes off the road for any reason."
LaHood's biggest challenge will be to find a way to enforce unpopular restrictions on drivers in love with their cellphones. One survey found that eight in 10 drivers talk on their phones while behind the wheel. LaHood is counting on frightening numbers -- cellphone use is a factor in an estimated 342,000 auto accident injuries and costs $43 billion each year in property damage, lost wages, medical bills and loss of life -- to help win support.
"The public is sick and tired of people being distracted and causing accidents," he said last week.
Little more than a generation ago, cigarettes and push-button radios were just about all drivers had to tear their eyes from the road. Now cellphones, coffee cups, CDs, Global Positioning System devices and televisions compete for the attention of people behind the wheel.
Text messaging and cellphones have gotten most of the attention lately, and it might take LaHood's federal influence to wean the nation from them. Almost 90 percent of Americans own cellphones. The National Safety Council has estimated that 100 million drivers use cellphones, and another study concluded that 1 million people are chatting behind the wheel at any given moment.
Few states were willing to reduce to .08 the blood-alcohol level that defines drunken driving until their federal highway funds were threatened, and Congress might need to wield that stick again if unpopular restrictions are sought on cellphone use. New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has introduced a bill to withhold 25 percent of federal highway funds from states each year unless they ban texting.
"Studies show [texting] is far more dangerous than talking on a phone while driving or driving while drunk," Schumer said after the bill was filed. "With this new legislation, drivers will finally be held responsible for dangerous behavior that puts the public at risk."
When states take on the issue, legislators run up against lobbyists for a lucrative industry and constituents who are wedded to their phones. For an example of the resulting compromises, look to Virginia, where a law banning drivers from texting took effect July 1.
The law makes texting a secondary offense, so an officer has to stop a driver for some other reason before writing a texting citation. In court, the driver can say he was dialing a phone call, which is legal, or using his phone's GPS function, which is legal. Short of getting texting records from a phone company, which isn't allowed because the crime is a misdemeanor, an officer has no way to prove a driver was texting.
If the driver loses, the fine is $20 for the first offense.
"I don't want to say [the law is] totally useless, but it allows a lot of wiggle room," Banachoski said. "It's not much of a deterrent."
The District's ban on hand-held cellphones doesn't appear to have been much of a deterrent. Evidence that people are ignoring the requirement for hands-free equipment abounds. In 30 minutes one recent afternoon, 35 violators, or one every 51 seconds, passed through the 16th and K streets NW intersection.
Maryland will make texting behind the wheel a primary offense when a law carrying a $500 fine takes effect Oct. 1, but proposals to ban the use of hand-held phones while driving failed this year in the face of stiff opposition in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The challenge of enforcement is expected to be a central topic at LaHood's meeting next month.
"By the time police get to the scene of a crash, the evidence that cellphone use or texting was a factor almost always has disappeared," said Rae Tyson of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "People are loath to admit, 'Oh, yes, I was texting just before I plowed into the back of that car.' "
The lack of effective enforcement has made the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety agencies, reluctant to support new regulations.
"We're really where we were 20 years ago on drunk driving," association spokesman Jonathan Adkins said. "Let's develop an effective strategy for enforcement, and at that point we're likely to support a complete ban on cellphones, not just one on texting or requiring hands-free."
Scores of cellphone studies have been done. One concluded that the use of cellphones is as bad as driving drunk, and another said that using a hands-free device is as distracting as eating a cheeseburger. There is general agreement that tunnel vision occurs while driving on a phone, and the more complex the conversation, the less attention is paid to the road. Using hands-free phones doesn't seem to help much.
Cellphone users are up to four times more likely to be in a traffic accident, and the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis estimated in 2003 that their use was a factor in 6 percent of accidents. That translated to 636,000 crashes resulting in 12,000 serious injuries and 2,600 deaths.
Truck drivers are at far greater risk when they reach for their phones, according to a recent study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. They are at almost six times greater risk when dialing and 23 times greater when texting.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration took the Harvard Center assessment and other research into account in 2003, concluding that cellphones were to blame for 240,000 accidents and 955 deaths.
Early one afternoon in June, a 17-year-old high school girl was driving down a county road near Eureka, Ill. As her sport-utility vehicle crested a hill, it drifted across the center line, swerved to avoid an oncoming car and rolled several times.
Police determined that Alyssa Burns had received a text message just as she lost control of the SUV. Her death caught the attention of LaHood, a former Illinois congressman who had gone home from Washington for a visit. The transportation secretary invoked her name when he announced plans for next month's meetings.
"We all know texting while driving is dangerous -- and I promise you we're going to do something about it," he said.