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Feb. 26, 2013: An man works his phone as he drives through traffic in Dallas.

LM Otero, AP

The Drive: Web-surfing drivers may as well sleep at the wheel

  • Article by: Tim Harlow
  • Star Tribune
  • November 17, 2013 - 5:33 PM

Quickly reading a text message or going online while driving may seem innocuous. But you might as well doze off.

It takes an average of 4.6 seconds to send or read a text message, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Yet that’s long enough for a motorist going 55 miles per hour to cover the length of a football field.

“It’s the same as closing your eyes for five seconds,” said Eric Roeske of the Minnesota State Patrol. “I think people would recognize the danger and tragic consequences of that. This [texting and Web surfing] isn’t any different.”

The topic of drivers texting and accessing the Internet was back in the news last week when insurer State Farm issued its 2013 Distracted Driving Survey. Among the notable findings is that the percentage of drivers who go online while behind the wheel has nearly doubled in the past five years. Now about 25 percent of drivers admit to surfing while tooling down the road, up from just 13 percent five years ago.

While drivers under age 30 are most likely to go online while driving (49 percent), older drivers, too, are getting into the habit. The number of adults 40 to 49 who have smartphones rose from 47 percent to 82 percent in the past two years. The number of drivers between 30 and 39 with smartphones grew by 26 percent and among drivers 50 to 64 ownership rose 20 percent. About 72 percent of all drivers now own smartphones.

With all that technology just a finger’s reach away, it’s no surprise that older drivers are joining their younger counterparts in reading and composing e-mail, accessing the Internet and updating social media networks. That’s alarming to law enforcement and it should be to the motoring public, too, since cellphone use has become a key ­contributor in 25 percent of crashes in Minnesota. Last year, there were 70 deaths and 8,000 injuries attributed to distracted driving, Roeske said.

Ironically a majority of motorists know that using their cellphones while driving is dangerous. The survey showed that 76 percent said sending a text message while behind the wheel is “very distracting” and 62 percent said that reading a text message is “very distracting.” Yet, the practice continues to grow.

“Each person has his own reason for using a phone and breaking the law, but they feel the need to do that,” Roeske said. “It’s so tempting to pick up that phone and look up information. Some can’t resist the urge.”

More than 39 states have laws banning texting and accessing the Internet using a wireless device while driving. Maybe the rules are not tough enough. (In Minnesota, fines start at around $125.) More than half of the survey’s respondents said those who get caught should go to jail. Just under half said violators should have their license suspended or revoked.

Enforcement has become a top priority for the State Patrol, Roeske said. So has education. Public service campaigns have made progress in raising the seat-belt compliance rate and reducing the number of crashes involving drunken drivers in Minnesota. Perhaps they can with cellphone use, too.

NHTSA says drowsiness leads to 56,000 crashes annually, leading to roughly 40,000 nonfatal injuries and 1,550 fatalities. Without a change in attitude, the number of crashes and deaths attributed to cellphone use will follow suit.

Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on startribune.com. Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail drive@startribune.com, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.

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