By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 12:49 AM
The number of drivers distracted by reading text messages on the Capital Beltway has soared by 47 percent in the past year, a new survey has found, and more than half of drivers talk on their cellphones.
The increase in the number of people reading and sending text messages might be a product of compulsive communication syndrome or frustration with sluggish traffic, but it might also reflect awareness that the law banning text messaging is toothless.
"No matter how important you perceive the messages to be, you are breaking the law," Capt. Susan Culin, head of the traffic division in Fairfax County, said Thursday. "Beyond enforcement, we have to stigmatize this type of behavior, make it unacceptable."
The survey, released Thursday, was conducted on the Beltway in Virginia, where the law requires that police find some other valid offense to stop a driver before a texting ticket can be issued.
In Fairfax County, home to much of the Virginia Beltway, police became so frustrated with the law that they dredged up an old law that requires drivers to "pay full time and attention" to the road so they could ticket those caught text-messaging.
The survey was done by AAA and Fluor-Transurban, the company that is building the $2 billion high-occupancy toll lanes along the 14-mile stretch of construction on the Beltway between the Springfield interchange and the Dulles Toll Road.
A majority of the 1,000 drivers surveyed said they felt an urgent need to respond immediately to work-related text messages or calls, and half of them said their employer has no policy regarding distracted driving.
"Now more than half of Beltway drivers are admitting that their full attention is not on the road, and many are also indicating the distractions are work-related," said Lon Anderson of AAA. "This makes the commitment of employers like Booz Allen, Inova, SAIC and Tysons Corner Center, which are stepping up and prioritizing the safety of their employees, even more critical to curtailing crashes and saving lives."
The drivers surveyed said they were aware of the perils of distracted driving, a subject on which U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has led a national crusade. Seventy-two percent of them said they had seen news stories on the issue. Twenty-two percent of them said they had read text messages on the Beltway, 13 percent said they send messages and 53 percent said they talked on their cellphones.
Consistent with past surveys, younger drivers were more likely to text message. Thirty percent of those ages 24 to 44 said they read text messages, an increase of 8 percent from a year ago, and 19 percent said they write text messages, a 5 percent increase.
Texting while driving also is banned in the District, Maryland and 28 other states. In both the District and Maryland, the laws allow officers to stop drivers for texting alone.
A Washington Post poll earlier this year found that almost one-quarter of those surveyed said they e-mail, text or use the Internet while driving, and 16 percent said they regularly don't pay enough attention behind the wheel.
A national survey by State Farm Insurance found that 62 percent of drivers said they talked on the phone, 23 percent said they read text messages and 16 percent said they sent text messages.
About 270 million cellphones are in use nationally, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that 11 percent of drivers are using them at any given moment. NHTSA says that distracted driving led to 448,000 accidents and 5,474 highway deaths last year.