Texting drivers: R U 4 real?



It's a reliable rule of thumb, validated by a colleague from Baton Rouge, that anytime your state ties with Louisiana for anything, it's bad news.

According to a survey released last week, Maryland and the Bayou State are tied for No. 4 among the 48 contiguous states in the percentage of drivers who send text messages while driving. The survey, commissioned by the software firm vlingo Corp., found that in both states, 36 percent of motorists say they drive while texting.

Only South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee have a greater percentage of drivers with the confidence, skill and courage it takes to simultaneously navigate more than a ton of metal through our streets with fingers fluttering over a tiny keyboard.

Oy vey.

Part of me wishes I'd never seen this survey. It's daunting enough to get out on Interstate 95 or the Beltway without knowing there's a better than 1-in-3 chance that the person whose SUV is closing in on your rear bumper is a practitioner of DWT.

But perhaps it's better to know so we can take defensive steps - such as increasing our life insurance coverage. (Don't look for escape to the north or south; Virginia and Pennsylvania are right behind Maryland at 35 percent.)

The survey is particularly timely because it comes just a couple months after the General Assembly turned down a proposal to ban DWT - as New Jersey and Washington state do. Somehow, the folks who pass on our traffic laws couldn't get their heads around the notion that driving while texting is more than a wee bit more dangerous than chatting on a cell phone.

Give credit to the Maryland Senate, which passed Montgomery County Sen. Jamie Raskin's bill by a thumping 26-21. But the measure died in a House committee. Sadly, it will probably take a well-publicized, in-state multiple fatality to convince legislators that DWT is a problem here.

Dave Grannan, chief executive officer of Cambridge, Mass.-based vlingo, said Maryland's high rank in the DWT Derby probably reflects a high percentage of young professionals and college students. Nationally, the survey shows that more than half of drivers under the age of 29 text-message while driving.

Grannan's company creates the software for devices that convert voice messages into text, so it could be argued that he has an interest in showing high levels of DWT. But overall, the survey squares with other studies showing DWT to be a growing problem.

"When we saw these numbers, we were pretty shocked, actually," Grannan said. "We think there is this coming tidal wave, if you will, of a public policy and safety issue."

One encouraging result in the survey is that 85 percent of drivers said they would refrain from text-messaging while driving if it were illegal. Support for a ban increases with age, reaching the 90 percent level among drivers over 60. Even as timid a creature as a Maryland legislator could support such a measure without fear of voter retribution.

In the absence of legislation, we can only hope DWT enthusiasts will voluntarily adopt technology such as that marketed by vlingo. Talking on a cell phone while behind the wheel is still a distraction, but as Grannan noted, it has to be safer than tapping on keys.

"If they're going to do it, I'd rather that they do it with the power of their voice," he said.

On the right route

A remarkable document landed in my e-mail last week bearing the thrilling title of "Analysis of and Proposed Modifications to the Bus Route Changes to Take Effect in 2008." Bet you can't wait to read it.

The analysis was prepared by the Transit Riders Action Council of Metropolitan Baltimore, an aggressive advocacy group that serves as a watchdog over the Maryland Transit Administration.

Whenever the MTA proposes route changes, you can count on TRAC to do a painstaking analysis. Often, the result is a withering critique of the transit agency's plans to muck about with the buses.

This time, however, TRAC loves the eight route changes proposed for implementation this year. The pit bull of local transit is wagging its tail. (You can see the full report at www.getontrac.org.)

"Since the formation of the Transit Riders Action Council of Metropolitan Baltimore (TRAC), this is the first set of bus changes that the MTA has proposed in which every single one of the MTA's proposed changes would, in our view, lead to better service than now exists. Clearly, the MTA has been paying attention to types of concerns voiced by bus riders over the last several years," the executive summary reads. "We at TRAC congratulate the MTA and its Department of Service Development for the best set of changes that TRAC has seen coming out of MTA."

TRAC goes on to praise not just the results but the process that brought them about.

"For the first time, the MTA has shown a willingness to modify their proposals prior to the public hearings based solely upon public input at community meetings. Furthermore, MTA has demonstrated an interest in public opinion actually shaping proposals rather than just being a backstop to prevent the implementation of bad proposals."

I called Ed Cohen, the outgoing president of TRAC, to make sure the report wasn't dealing with some other MTA in a parallel universe. Cohen, who knows local transit systems as well as anyone, said he's "never seen the MTA behave this way" in his decades of dealing with the agency. He gives much of the credit to Katherine Daley, who was recruited from Dallas Area Rapid Transit in December as director of service development.

"This woman is a find. She understands transit. She's making changes that make sense," he said.

It's about time somebody did.


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