Documentary takes on texting-while-driving tragedies

But the Safety Council believes better laws and stricter enforcement are needed

A new 35-minute online documentary by acclaimed director Werner Herzog describes the tragedies inflicted in four driving-while-texting crashes.

The film, One Second to the Next, focuses on the victims -- some living with traumatic injuries and others dead -- but also on two of the drivers telling their own tales of texting when the accidents occurred.

While the documentary is emotional, it also raises questions about the effectiveness of such films and other public safety education efforts at a time when texting-while-driving is on the rise. Some activists believe states need more effective anti-texting laws and better enforcement to combat the problem.

Already, 41 states have some form of law that restricts texting while driving, but many of the laws don't treat the act as a primary offense, meaning a driver has to be stopped for something else -- speeding or running a stop sign, for instance -- before the texting offense can be enforced.

"We're ultimately going to need strong laws very actively enforced," said John Ulczycki, vice president of the National Safety Council in a telephone interview. Even with well-organized national anti-texting efforts in recent years, he estimated fewer than 15% of drivers have stopped texting.

Produced by AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, the film is the latest effort to educate drivers about the dangers of texting while driving as part the It Can Wait campaign started by AT&T in 2010.

That multimillion-dollar effort now includes all four major carriers and 200 other organizations and urges drivers to pledge to "never text and drive." Pledge drives reach out to community centers, schools and shopping malls while Twitter and Instagram feature celebrities talking about texting dangers.

The Herzog film debuts at a time when the It Can Wait movement says texting while driving is epidemic. In May, the group released a study saying 60% of the drivers surveyed admitted to texting while driving and never did so three years ago -- and 98% said they knew it wasn't safe.

As far back as 2009, the National Safety Council (NSC) urged that all uses of a cell phone -- watching videos, talking or texting, included-- by a driver be banned while a vehicle is in motion, a position it still holds. Since then, the vast majority of legislation in states and cities has focused on texting while driving. Meanwhile the NSC contends that driving and talking on a phone -- either holding the phone or using it hands-free -- is causing more crashes than texting because so many people talk for far longer periods than they text.

"We believe talking on cell phones leads to 20% of all crashes while texting causes 4% of crashes," Ulzycki said. The data is hard to gather, since it is often impossible for a police officer to prove texting or cell phone use was involved. The NSC derived its numbers from federal crash data that shows far fewer crashes as a result of texting or talking on a cell phone. Last year, there were about 6 million car crashes in the U.S. from all causes, of which 3.7 million resulted in injuries or deaths, the NSC said.

Based on the NSC's estimate, about 240,000 crashes a year are the result of texting while driving, although the It Can Wait website uses an apparently older number of 100,000-plus.

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