Dying While Texting

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 10 2009 8:23 AM

Dying While Texting

Remember that train crash near L.A. in September, where the engineer was texting while driving ? Twenty-five dead, 130 injured. In three hours of work before the crash, the engineer received 28 text messages and sent 29 more . He sent his last message 22 seconds before impact, just after passing a signal that would have alerted him to the disaster ahead.

Now some of the victims have filed suit. They're alleging that the engineer's bosses were warned about his texting habit. Here's the New York Times summary :

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The plaintiffs' lawyers said at a news conference that a co-worker of Mr. Sanchez [the engineer] had told managers ... that Mr. Sanchez frequently used his cellphone while on duty, in defiance of company policy. ... The employee placed at least two calls to managers from July to September, [the plaintiffs' attorney] said. In addition, he said, the employee told him that on a routine inspection two months before the crash, a supervisor caught Mr. Sanchez violating the policy barring engineers' use of cellphones while on duty. Still, he said, the engineer was never punished.

Remember, these are just allegations. They'll have to be tested at trial, if it comes to that. But if they're borne out, let's not make the same mistake Sanchez's superiors allegedly made. Let's take driving while texting—or while phoning—as seriously as we take driving while drunk. After all, as this column mentioned three months ago , research shows that even with a hands-free device, talking on a phone can impair driving skills more than intoxication does .

Alcohol has been around for millennia. Cell phones have not. We evolved to function in the natural world, one setting at a time. Nature has never tested a species's ability to function in two worlds at once. We're now taking that test, and we're flunking it. So here's a message to the 45 states that let people drive while holding a phone, and to the 50 states that let allow driving while talking on a hands-free phone: Sober up.

 

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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