Jennifer Smith, a Texas real estate agent, remembers when she
considered her car an office, her cellphone a professional lifeline.
If it rang, she picked it up. If she thought of information to
share, she dialed. She knew that it wasn't the best idea to chat
while driving, of course, but it wasn't illegal, and she didn't want
to lose clients. Besides, she figured, she was careful.
But then, in September last year, a driver using a cellphone
plowed through a red light and slammed into Ms. Smith's mother's
mini-SUV. Linda Doyle, who'd been on her way to pick up cat food for
the Central Oklahoma Humane Society, where she was a regular
volunteer, died the next morning.
During the excruciating months that followed, Smith couldn't
shake the feeling that something about the crash didn't make sense.
The driver who killed her mother was a sober, churchgoing 20-year-
old who'd never even had a speeding ticket. He had been on the phone
for less than a minute. Visibility on the road was excellent. But
the police report said that when a trooper asked him what color the
traffic light had been, the distraught young man responded that he
never saw it. He'd crashed into the driver's side of Ms. Doyle's car
at nearly 50 m.p.h.; there weren't even skid marks at the scene.
"He's a good kid," Smith says. "He is you and I. He is not just a
teenager who doesn't care. I didn't understand how someone like that
could just drive through a light without seeing it. So I started
The more she found, the angrier she became. Study upon study
showed that talking on a cellphone while driving was far more
dangerous than she'd realized - that a driver on a phone had the
same reaction speed as someone legally intoxicated, that those
talking on a phone behind the wheel are four times as likely to
crash, that texting while driving is even more dangerous. And
studies repeatedly showed that hands-free headsets - sometimes
advertised as safer - were no less dangerous.
"I was just astonished," she says. Soon, Smith joined a growing
movement of crash victims' families, academic researchers, and
public-safety advocates campaigning against "distracted driving."
This public-safety movement has for years lobbied state
legislatures to change driving laws, worked with schools and student
groups, and pressured the federal government and industries to set
new cellphone regulations. But momentum has picked up recently with
some high-profile fatal crashes, including a number involving teens
texting while driving. And last month, in what many saw as a coming
of age for the movement, the US Department of Transportation hosted
a distracted driving summit, where Secretary of Transportation Ray
LaHood called for action against what he termed a "deadly epidemic."
"Distracted driving is a menace to society. And it seems to be
getting worse every year," he said.
But he and others say that the fight against distracted driving
could be much harder than other public-safety efforts, including the
anti-drunken-driving movement that swept the country in the 1980s.
Far more people talk on their cellphones and use other electronic
gadgets in the car than drive drunk, safety officials say. A
generation of text-happy teenagers are getting their driver's
licenses, and established drivers are increasingly buying smart
phones that allow for distracting activity beyond just text-ing and
talking - GPS and entertainment devices, too, pull eyes and mental
focus off the road.
And even where hand-held phone use in cars is banned - as it is
in California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon,
Washington, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands -
enforcement is difficult. One study observing New York drivers, for
instance, showed that the law did little to reduce the number of
drivers with phones to ears.
While dozens of countries - from Australia to Zimbabwe - take a
harsh view of this behavior and have banned hand-held phones in
cars, there is little social stigma in the US. …