Admit it. You’ve done it. You’ve been driving down the street (and yes, the autopista as well) when your phone, blackberry, or whatever you use to call and text with goes off. You immediately grab it, even though you are driving in traffic and really shouldn’t.

It’s a dangerous and terrible habit Costa Rican drivers have developed.

It is beyond dispute that texting and driving is very dangerous. Even more dangerous that drinking and driving or talking on a mobile (cellular) phone.

Texting while driving’ is the act of composing, sending, reading text messages, email, or making other similar use of the web on a mobile phone while operating a motor vehicle.

Texting while driving leads to increased distraction behind the wheel. Although talking on a cellular phone while operating a vehicle is considered dangerous, the threat increased as Short Message Service (SMS) or texting, became popular.

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Texting has become a social norm fairly quickly since the year 2000, as most cell phone plans include a text messaging package. The popularity of smartphones, which allow people to communicate in even more ways, increases the likelihood of usage. It cannot be contested that text messaging and other forms of text communication on mobile phones offer a level of convenience that cannot be matched.

The dilemma is at what point do we chose safety over convenience. Many studies have linked texting while driving to the cause of life-threatening accidents due to driver distraction. The International Telecommunication Union states that “texting, making calls, and other interaction with in-vehicle information and communication systems while driving is a serious source of driver distraction and increases the risk of traffic accidents”.

Simply, when writing and sending a text or reading a text received… while driving means having to take your eyes off the road, even if for a split second, enough time to unleash a catastrophic series of tragic and fatal events.

While having a conversation on a cell phone while driving is totally visible to a traffic cop, reading or writing a text message is not. And for mobile conversations there are hands free devices, though one could argue that the conversation is a distraction, it allows the driver to keep both hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

Texting, however, means one hand has to be occupied and at least one eye has to be on the device while the other on the road. And unless you possess some super human ability, how do you split your vision?

There are no statistics and research available for Costa Rica, thus we have to rely on research done in other countries, like the United States and the United Kingdom.

A 2010 experiment with Car and Driver magazine editor Eddie Alterman that took place at a deserted air strip showed that texting while driving had a greater impact on safety than driving drunk. While legally drunk, Alterman’s stopping distance from 70 mph increased by 4 feet; by contrast, reading an e-mail added 36 feet, and sending a text added 70 feet. While celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey have campaigned against texting while driving, there are reports that the message has not been getting through to teenagers.

In the UK in 2009, Gwent Police worked with filmmaker Peter Watkins-Hughes and production company Zipline Creative to create the graphic short film “Cow”, as part of a campaign to stop texting while driving. The film earned honors in the Advertising Age’s weekly Creativity Top 5 videos[9] and became an overnight worldwide internet hit after being shown on the American news program The Today Show.

A simulation study at the Monash University Accident Research Centre provided strong evidence that retrieving and, in particular, sending text messages has a detrimental effect on a number of safety-critical driving measures. Specifically, negative effects were seen in detecting and responding correctly to road signs, detecting hazards, time spent with eyes off the road, and (only for sending text messages) lateral position. Mean speed, speed variability, lateral position when receiving text messages, and following distance showed no difference.[11] A separate, yet unreleased simulation study at the University of Utah found a sixfold increase in distraction-related accidents when texting.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has released polling data that show that 87% of people consider texting and e-mailing while driving a “very serious” safety threat, almost equivalent to the 90% of those polled who consider drunk driving a threat. Despite the acknowledgement of the dangers of texting behind the wheel, about half of drivers 16 to 24 say they have texted while driving, compared with 22 percent of drivers 35 to 44.

The 2008 Will Smith movie Seven Pounds deals with Smith’s character committing suicide in order to donate his organs to help save the lives of seven people to make up for the seven people he killed in a car accident because he was receiving a text message while he was driving. Texting while driving attracted interest in the media after several highly publicized car crashes were caused by texting drivers, including a May 2009 incident involving a Boston trolley car driver who crashed while texting his girlfriend.

Several studies have attempted to compare the dangers of texting while driving with driving under the influence. One such study was conducted by Car and Driver magazine in June 2009.

The study, carried out at the Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport in Oscoda, Michigan, used two drivers in real cars and measured reaction times to the onset of light on the windshield. The study compared the reaction times and distances of the subjects while reading a text message, replying to the text message, and impaired. The study showed that at 35 mph, reading a text message decreased the reaction time the most, 0.12 and 0.87 seconds. Impaired driving at the same speed resulted in an increase of 0.01 and 0.07 seconds. In terms of stopping distances these times were estimated to mean:

  • Unimpaired: .54 seconds to brake
  • Legally drunk: add 4 feet
  • Reading e-mail: add 36 feet
  • Sending a text: add 70 feet

Besides Costa Rica, a number of countries ban all cell phone use while driving (talking and texting): Canada, All provinces and the Northwest Territories have banned both talking on hand-held phones and texting while driving; Germany, where any use of a mobile phone is forbidden as long as the vehicle’s engine is running; United Kingdom, any use of a hand-held mobile phone or similar device whilst driving, or supervising a learner driver, is illegal.

In the United States texting while driving has been outlawed or is soon to be outlawed for all drivers in the following states: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada. New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The state of Texas prohibits school bus drivers from texting while transporting a child under 17. The states of Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Texas and West Virginia have laws restricting those who are underage and/or with learner’s permits from texting while driving. Laws enacted in Kentucky in 2010, Indiana in 2011 and Ohio in 2012 banned texting for all drivers, as well as cell phone usage by all drivers under 18. The latter feature is unusual in that holders of unrestricted licenses are subject to the ban; most states that have banned cell phone usage by young drivers apply their laws only to holders of restricted or graduated licenses.

In Florida, a proposed bill known as “Heather’s Law” would ban all cell phone use while driving. The law was inspired by the death of Heather Hurd, who was killed in an accident allegedly caused by a truck driver who crashed into 10 cars when he was sending a text message behind the wheel. On January 26, 2010, the US Department of Transportation announced a federal ban on texting while driving by truckers and bus drivers.

In Costa Rica using a cellular phone (INCLUDES TEXTING) while driving can cost you ¢280.000 colones (US$565 dollars) and six (6) points. AND IT INCLUDES TEXTING.

Article 126 of the Ley de Tránsito prohibits all drivers from using mobile phones and any other medium or communication system, unless your hands are not used, are used headphones or similar instruments. Exempted from this prohibition are emergency service providers, in the exercise of functions, unless accompanied by another person who can take care of the communications. It also prohibits driving doing activities other than those demand proper driving.

[highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]ARTÍCULO 126.- Uso de teléfonos celulares o distractores Se prohíbe a todos los conductores utilizar teléfonos móviles y cualquier otro medio o sistema de comunicación, salvo que no se empleen las manos, se utilicen auriculares o instrumentos similares. Quedan exentos de esta prohibición, las autoridades y los prestatarios de servicios de emergencia que, en el ejercicio de las funciones, deban realizar sus comunicaciones, salvo que estén acompañados de otra persona que pueda hacerse cargo de estos instrumentos. Asimismo, se prohíbe conducir realizando actividades distintas de las que demanda la debida conducción de vehículos.[/highlight]

In reality however, Tránsitos (Costa Rica’s traffic cops) have an eye only on drivers with a cellular phone to their ear, ignoring if the driver  texting, even if visibly doing so. This is not to say that the Tránsitos are ignoring the law. According to a Tránsito who agreed to speak to the Q on strict anonymity, most Tránsitos look the other way on anything (with respect to a cell phone) unless the cell phone propped up to the ear.

Using technology to address the problem
In 2009 it was reported that some companies, including iZUP, ZoomSafer, Aegis Mobility, and cellcontrol by obdEdge employ systems that place restrictions on cell phone usage based on the phone’s GPS signal, data from the car itself or from nearby cellphone towers. The use of telematics to detect drunk driving and texting while driving has been proposed. A US patent application combining this technology with a usage based insurance product was open for public comment on peer to patent. The insurance product would not ban texting while driving, but would charge drivers who text and drive a higher premium.

AT&T in the US has introduced the “take the plege” program committed to putting an end to texting and driving. AT&T provides an App, that when enabled and the vehicle is moving 25 mph, automatically sends a customizable auto-reply message to incoming texts. (Data and text messaging charges may apply for download and app usage says AT&T ‘s website.)

AT&T has also developed the “Texting and Driving: It Can Wait” Simulator — to show first hand the dangers of texting behind the wheel — in a safe way.  Sync your smartphone and try the simulator now.

Unfortunately the app is available only for AT&T subscribers and only for Android and BlackBerry smartphones. A spokeswoman said the company is working on an iPhone app, but no release date is scheduled. Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile make similar apps, although they are not all free.

If you feel it is essential to get and respond to text messages while driving, consider using a service that will read your text messages to you and allow you to respond by talking.

If you have an iPhone 4 or 3, or a BlackBerry, you can download the DriveSafe.ly app, which provides a similar service. iPhone users can simpley ask Siri to read the text to you. Unfortunately Siri, available on the iPhone5 or 4S is not available in Costa Rica.

There are also apps to help parents of teen drivers, who are more likely to text and drive than any other age group. If you are the parent of a teenage driver, consider downloading the DriveScribe app, available in Google Play and Apple’s App Store, to your child’s smartphone.

The free app uses a jamming function to block all texts and calls when it is switched to “driver mode.” It also keeps drivers apprised of speed limits and upcoming stop signs, and will even tell a driver to slow down if the car is moving too fast. Paranoid parents can even get text or email alerts when the app detects the vehicle is going faster than the speed limit.
As an incentive for teens to activate the app — rather than being told by their parents — the app developer created a scoring system in which drivers are awarded points and gift cards for safe driving.

An app called OneProtect provides even more control for parents. Once the app is installed on a teen’s phone the parent can turn the app on remotely, making it impossible for a teen to turn the app off without the parents finding out.
But keep in mind that it’s not just kids who are texting and driving — the AT&T survey found that 41% of teens say they’ve seen their parents text and drive too.

So, look into these apps and decide which is right for you. And in the meantime, throw your phone in the glove compartment while you’re in the car and lock it if you need to. The first step to breaking the texting-while-driving addiction starts with you.

Editor’s note: the apps mentioned in this report were not tested in Costa Rica.

Criticism of bans
One argument against banning texting while driving is that it is safe and helpful under some circumstances. For example, a driver in a traffic jam might safely, and usefully, send a text message rescheduling an appointment.

Another argument can be made against the wording of the texting bans. Instead of banning the act of writing or reading that distracts a person from driving, such as reading a book, writing notes on a piece of paper or writing text using a keyboard of a phone, the laws mostly ban the act of sending text messages and do not say anything about how the messages were created. Using voice recognition technology, text messages can be created with eyes and hands free, and without ever engaging in the act of reading or writing.

A sign in West University Place, Texas (Greater Houston) advising drivers that they are not allowed to text

Be Part of the Solution!
Share your ‘texting & driving’ related story with TxtResponsibly.org and help raise awareness of the dangers of texting while driving. Your story may be selected for the ‘Be a part of the solution’ awareness campaign. Campaign posters will be made available at  free for download and distribution. In addition, selected stories will be given a dedicated page under the Share Your Story section at TxtResponsibly.org. Help bring focus to the dangers of texting and driving by sharing your story today.

In Closing
A texting driver is 23 times more likely to get into a crash than a non-texting driver.

People feel pressure to remain in constant contact, even when behind the wheel. What drivers do not realize are the dangers posed when they take their eyes off the road and their hands off the wheel, and focus on activities other than driving.

The average text takes a driver’s eyes off the road for nearly five seconds. When traveling at 55mph, that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field.

The message being conveyed is that texting while driving isn’t multitasking, it’s essentially driving blind.