With potentially deadly irony, we note that when it comes to texting and driving, many aren’t getting the message.
Seattle-based PEMCO Insurance recently surveyed 600 Washington state residents about their habits involving driving and cellphones. The issue is of more than idle interest to PEMCO, whose stated niche market is “preferred risk” policyholders. These are individuals least likely to incur traffic tickets or auto accidents.
The question concerned either talking on a cellphone without a hands-free device or texting while driving. The majority of those responding — 58 percent — say they never do either, though that leaves a sizable minority who ‘fess up to doing one or the other. About 15 percent said they text or talk sometimes or often; under age 35, the percentage rises to 25 percent.
The figures are even more discomfiting for texting while driving: Just over 10 percent do so regularly, and expect that number to be higher for those under age 35. In fact, expect the numbers to be higher across the board, as these are the people who actually admit to behavior that drivers should know is illegal in this state.
Sound reasons underlie the state laws against such activity. Studies show that driving while texting is like having a blood alcohol level of 0.19 percent, more than double the legal limit of 0.08 percent. Texting while driving has been found to increase the accident risk by 23 times. Those who talk on a hand-held phone are four times more likely to get into an injury accident; the National Safety Council estimates about one in five accidents involves talking on a cellphone, whether hand-held or hands-free.
Washington law deems it a primary offense to text or use a hand-held phone while driving; offenders face a fine of up to $124. The law allows drivers to use hands-free devices, despite research that shows they don’t reduce accident risk much.
Use of cellphones is a major contributor to distracted driving, which also includes actions like changing a CD, reading a map or having an intense conversation with a passenger. Distracted driving accounts for more than 3,000 traffic deaths nationwide each year. Amid these sobering stats, research by Washington State University finds young drivers will cut down texting and driving after viewing public service announcements that include graphic images of the consequences of a fatal accident.
That kind of educational campaign may work, along with jacking up the fine. Washington’s $124 is actually above the national median but far below the $500 in neighboring Oregon. Alaska, even with its live-free ethic and wide-open spaces, outdoes everyone with a fine of up to $10,000.
The laws haven’t stopped the problem of motorist abuse of cellphones, so an education effort is in order. And stiffening the penalty would help buttress that education, too.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.