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Texting while driving getting more attention

Are you a one-handed glancer? A two-thumb-typing knee steerer?

Or maybe you’re like Ashley Serrate, 26, who is an only-at-red-light responder.

Text messaging while driving has become a daily distraction for a generation of drivers hooked on instant communication — and a menace to others on the road.

Last year, Heather Hurd, 26, and Stephanie Phills, 37, died when a truck driver, reaching for his hand-held device to text his office, rammed into traffic at a stoplight on U.S. 27 in central Florida, causing a 10-car pileup, police said. The driver was cited for careless driving, a noncriminal offense that carries a $500 fine.

In May, a truant Tampa high school student slammed into a patrol car while texting. She caused $3,000 in damage but no injuries.

In New York, texting is considered the likely cause of a crash that killed five cheerleaders last year. And in April, a California woman was sentenced to six years in prison for killing a woman in a car accident — caused by texting while driving.

Isolated incidents?

In a previously unreleased report, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealed last month that in 2002 there were 955 deaths and 240,000 crashes attributable to drivers using cell phones — either texting or talking. That was before texting became a true phenomenon.

This past week, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute reported that texting while driving is 23 times more dangerous than driving fully alert.

There are 14 states that make it illegal to send a text message while driving, but Florida isn’t one of them. Rep. Doug Holder of Sarasota filed a bill Wednesday to make it illegal to read or type on any mobile device while behind the wheel in Florida.

He has been trying to get a bill passed for three years, to no avail. He hopes that the buzz around the new research could make a difference.

Holder calls the public safety issue “a no brainer.”

Cell phones have turned vehicles into rolling offices, and many can’t resist typing a quick response.

“My friends are always texting while driving,” said Ashley Serrate, who lives in Kendall. “Sometimes even my mom does it.”

In a Harris Interactive/Intel survey, 28 percent of adults admit to typing while driving, and 8 percent said they do it often.

The Transport Research Laboratory in the U.K. found that drivers slowed their reaction time by as much as 35 percent when reading or texting. Compare that to smoking marijuana and driving, which slowed reaction time 21 percent. Drivers at the legal alcohol-intake limit were slowed 12 percent. Car and Driver magazine did a test last month and confirmed the results: texting is worse than driving at the legal alcohol limit.

“Everyone knows the dangers,” said Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Mark Wysocky, whose agency doesn’t track crashes caused by texting. “We all know when you text and try to make phone calls. Where do your eyes go? Your eyes go to the phone and then your eyes are off the roadway.”

Trying to raise awareness about distracted driving, FHP recently launched its Stay Alive, Just Drive campaign -- handing out pamphlets warning of the dangers.

The dangers seem pretty common sense — taking your eyes off the road isn’t safe. So why do we do it?

“The more times you do this without any kind of incident, the more you reinforce to your mind that the risks are low,” said Joseph Sharit, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Miami.

He explains that you can get away with it 100 times in a row by making “good decisions” — like glancing at a phone quickly and only texting when traffic is light. But in the end, a driver who is texting is not in control to make an unexpected, split-second decision.

“Eventually it’s gotta catch up with you,” Sharit said, “It’s just a matter of chance.”

Miami-Dade Judge Steve Leifman, head of traffic court, has seen a growing number of accident cases where cell phones were involved — but distracted driving appears in his courtroom in many forms.

“You’d be amazed. Some people are brushing their teeth, putting on makeup, eating, combing their hair, texting and cell use,” Leifman said.

But cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell, director of user experience at Intel, said the glowing screen begs to be answered and represents a subconscious need to be connected.

“It becomes a real, tangible symbol of our relationships,” Bell said. “I think it makes it very difficult sometimes to know how to ignore that because it feels like we are ignoring those relationships, too.”

Serrate — the red-light responder — said she always feels the need to reply to her boyfriend’s messages if she’s on the road — even if it’s just to hit him back with, “I love you, too.”

“My boyfriend always tells me don’t text and drive, but he texts me,” Serrate said. “He is my enabler, a little bit.”

It’s not exactly a problem that can easily go away. As more programs are built to reach people on their mobile phones, the potential to get distracted is actually growing, said Charles Golvin an analyst with Forrester Research. The threat “is absolutely real,” says the expert on mobile devices for consumers.

There are a few companies developing ways to keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel. There are programs that will read your text messages aloud, or let you turn your speech into a text message. One Washington company invented a way to strap your phone to your seat belt for hands-free calling. And if the user has willpower to keep it strapped, perhaps it could keep away text-happy fingers.

Said Golvin: “Technology doesn’t provide solutions to people doing stupid things.”

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