Video dramatization shows deadly consequences of texting and driving

As experts prepare for summit on distracted driving, debate ensues over whether videos, laws and technology can be effective

A dramatic Web-based video depicting four deaths caused by a young driver who was texting at the wheel has provoked a debate over the best ways to curb distracted driving in the U.S.

Some experts favor more laws banning texting while driving, while others favor technology that disables wireless service in a moving vehicle. However, psychologists see a valuable place for dramatic presentations like the latest graphic video produced by police in Wales, arguing that such tools can have an impact in educational settings, especially on young drivers.

The four-minute video, produced by local police in Gwent, Wales, has gone viral, attracting more than 1.5 million views on YouTube alone. YouTube has restricted viewings to those over 18 because of the bloody, graphic nature of the video; it's also requiring people to register before viewing it, although the video has been posted at the Gwent police Web site and elsewhere without restrictions. However, YouTube's restrictions have worked inconsistently, sometimes requiring a registration and other times not.

In a statement on its site, the Gwent police department said it is hoping the video can be used in schools across the U.K. to deter texting while driving. The Gwent police helped facilitate the filming of the video, including the auditions of 300 teenagers from Wales, "because we want to stop ALL drivers, but particularly young and new ones, from causing accidents," the statement said.

In the video, a teenage girl named Cassie Cowan texts on her cell phone while driving with two other girls. Her vehicle crosses the middle of the road, colliding head-on with an oncoming car. The two cars careen off the road, the girls exchange glances with bloodied faces, then a third car violently strikes Cassie's car in the side.

Much of the video is devoted to the aftermath at the scene, including Cassie screaming at her apparently dead friend, and footage of victims in another car, including an infant and a young girl, who asks why her parents won't wake up.

NBC's Today show broadcast portions of the video and questioned an advertising executive about the effectiveness of such a disturbing public service announcement in the ongoing debate over texting and driving.

Today noted that the dramatization is too graphic to be fully shown on most U.S. television stations, but the video has provoked some experts to debate the most effective means of curbing texting, which is already illegal in 17 states and the District of Columbia.

The Gwent video and others like it are timely. The U.S. Department of Transportation is holding a two-day, Web-based summit on distracted driving in late September, and the Gwent video and similar educational tools will likely be part of the discussion. Other issues likely to be on the table include laws and technological tools aimed at curbing texting, said David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah who will be speaking at the event. Transportation Department officials have not posted details of the summit's agenda, but they have invited lawmakers, academics and other experts with a broad range of backgrounds.

Strayer's research has found that texting and talking on cell phones can be as distracting as driving under the influence of alcohol. Therefore, he favors a broad range of approaches to prevent texting while driving, including the showing of harsh video dramatizations and testimony by survivors of crashes caused by texting.

The Gwent video is "pretty graphic, but not unrepresentative of the kinds of dangers associated with text messaging while driving," Strayer said in an interview. "Graphic for sure, but why sugarcoat accident fatalities? The video is memorable, and it apparently has people talking, so that is a good thing. It might just change a few people's behavior."

Strayer said that the incident depicted in the Gwent video is similar to a 2006 crash in Utah that left two scientists dead. In that incident, a 19-year-old teenager, Reggie Shaw, was texting while driving and swerved across the center line.

Shaw's sentence in the case required him to perform public service and talk to student drivers about the perils of texting while driving. Interviews with Shaw, the wives of the victims, and a short graphical re-creation of his crash are included in a 15-minute video recently produced by the Utah Safety Council and the Utah Department of Transportation, which has made the video available at the Web site promoting its Zero Fatalities program.

Cricket Communications Inc., a wireless service provider, has backed the Zero Fatalities effort in Utah and has organized a campaign called "Practice Safe Text" that asked drivers to pledge not to text or e-mail behind the wheel, a spokeswoman said. The nation's cellular industry, through the CTIA trade association, has opposed texting while driving, and one carrier, Verizon Wireless, has strongly endorsed a bill in the U.S. Senate that would deprive states of part of their federal highway funding if they don't pass such laws.

Strayer said the Gwent and Utah videos adhere to the principles of persuasive psychology. "The best way to persuade is to keep somebody's attention, the same way we sell beer by showing a girl in a bikini nearby," he said.

Strayer is working with the University of Utah to create a comprehensive Web site with information on distracted driving laws and a social networking component for family members of distracted driving crash victims.

Tools that prevent texting while driving

While Strayer said the summit must look at a variety of subjects, including educational efforts, some groups want more direct approaches, including technology that thwarts driving while texting or using a wireless device.

"We believe in better technology than education, because it's just so hard to educate drivers," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety (CAS), a public interest group that forced U.S. transportation officials to unseal documents connecting cell phone use to highway deaths.

The CAS wants federal rules that would require new cars to be equipped with devices that allow only emergency calls, effectively disabling a cell phone whenever the driver shifts out of park, Ditlow said. The organization also favors banning cell phone use while driving; five states already have such laws.

Despite the upcoming Transportation Department summit, Ditlow said the Obama administration has not been forceful enough on distracted driving issues. He also criticized the White House for not filling key posts, including the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. "You're not going to see major initiatives coming out of an agency that doesn't have an administrator," Ditlow added.

Strayer and Ditlow said various technologies for disabling cell phones will likely be discussed at the summit. Examples include software such as ZoomSafer, a free tool that enables people to dictate text messages while driving. All of the major carriers sell handsets that offer similar voice-to-text technology.

Other technologies that could help curb texting while driving include Aegis Mobility DriveAssist, which uses a handset's GPS technology to determine whether the device is inside a moving vehicle; if it is, the software can log incoming calls and texts and issue an automated response that says the user is currently driving. The Aegis Mobility DriveAssist service starts at $6 a month.

Another option is Key2SafeDriving, which costs $99 plus a $10 monthly fee. It allows a parent or guardian to set up a profile that prevents calls and texts when a Bluetooth device inside a car's ignition key determines that the vehicle is turned on and in motion.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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