NTSB: Cell phones, driving a dangerous mix
By MATT CHANDLER
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Jillian Hammell is the exception to the rule - and proud of it.
Six months ago, the 17-year-old senior at Hamburg High School earned her driver's license and took to the road. But unlike many of her peers, you won't pull up alongside her at a red light and see Hammell with her head down and face aglow from the light on her cell phone as she taps out text messages to family and friends.
"I know a lot of my friends are, but I'm not attached to my phone," she said. "I try not to text too much because I feel like I would become socially inept. I like talking to people."
In the wake of a recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board that states consider a full ban on the use of cell phones while driving, there is renewed emphasis on the danger of talking and texting.
Hammell said she has classmates who send thousands of text messages each month. And though her friends know better than to text while driving, she sees it as a major problem these days.
"Basically, we communicate through technology now, and it is really kind of sad. My friends that I drive with know better, because they know I would chew them out about it, but it definitely does happen," she said.
Hammell credits her father with instilling in her the importance of never using a phone while driving. In fact, she puts it out of reach when she's in the car. As for friends who send messages of "What's up?" or "What are you doing?" they can wait for her reply, she says.
"I don't understand why people would want to risk their lives for such a silly distraction," she said. "To me, it just isn't worth it."
Michael Stuermer is a personal injury attorney with Lipsitz Green Scime Cambria. He makes no bones about distracted driving on area roadways these days.
"The reality is, the majority of accidents on the highways are obviously caused by people who are not paying attention and are distracted," he said. "It is rare, however, that someone is going to admit that they were texting, so proving the action becomes the challenge."
Asked whether he sees the NTSB recommendation of a ban gaining momentum, Stuermer said he encourages discussion on the topic.
"Having represented people who have had family members killed or horrifically injured in an accident, I can understand the discussion of trying to do everything we can to eliminate obvious distractions," he said.
"The bottom line is: If you are texting and driving, you are not looking at the road."
Attorney Chris O'Brien, meanwhile, said he has seen firsthand the devastating effects of distracted drivers. His firm, O'Brien Boyd PC, represents victims in lawsuits against distracted drivers and, unfortunately, business is brisk, he says.
"I can tell you, without question, this is becoming a bigger and bigger problem every day," he said. "Texting and driving is rapidly replacing drunk driving as a leading accident- and injury-causing epidemic."
O'Brien doesn't necessarily back the NTSB's ban, however.
"The idea of a total ban on cell phone usage while driving may be going too far," he said, noting that he was answering that very question while driving - using a hands-free device, of course. "That is really the key: drivers having their hands and their attention focused on driving the car."
Studies show that drivers who are texting behind the wheel are actually more impaired than drunk drivers, according to O'Brien.
Steve Pacer is a public affairs specialist with AAA of Western and Central New York. He said his organization has stepped up educational initiatives regarding the dangers of texting while driving.
"Between our classes for teen drivers and our defensive driving classes, we emphasize the idea of 'hang up and drive.' Our local club also works as part of a coalition statewide on the legislative efforts to get changes made in the law," Pacer said.
Safer drivers is the ultimate goal, according to AAA.
"We think the NTSB recommendation is a step in the right direction in terms of advancing the discourse, but we focus more on what we see as attainable in the Legislature," Pacer said. "There just hasn't been that widespread political or public support for a full ban."
Greater support will likely come from more tragedies, according to O'Brien.
"I think it is going to take more deaths before we see a change," he said. "Unfortunately, it is going to take people losing their lives and being linked to texting while driving before we see real, substantive change."
He added: "Much like DWI, I think the answer to curbing the number of accidents related to distracted driving is that there has to be more of a public shaming for people who engage in texting while driving. People need to understand that they are not only putting their own life at risk but the lives of their passengers and every other person on the road. Is it really worth risking your life to write 'LOL'?"