Driving while texting: Is The New York Times encouraging while exposing it?

The photograph -- top of the front page, the New York Times, last Sunday's edition -- was dramatic enough. There it was, every parent's nightmare, in startling full color: a driver texting on a smartphone while a friend's hand gripped the steering wheel. Surely this image, by photographer Dan Gill, was staged -- but no. Here's the startling caption: "At 60 miles an hour on a Missouri highway, a 16-year-old driver texts with a friend as a 17-year-old takes the wheel."

Not that you're surprised. How many times have you seen this? Chances are, you've probably done it (or something like it) -- or you constantly discourage your spouse, partner, friend, or child from doing it. And though the image ran beneath a headline decrying the dangers of "Dismissing the Risks of a Deadly Habit," blogger Jim MacMillan wondered on Twitter whether the Times hadn't committed an ethical violation. By taking the photo and depicting the practice -- Gill says he was on an unrelated assignment in the car with the teens and snapped what was happening -- above the fold on the Newspaper of Record: isn't that an unspoken endorsement of the behavior?
If it is, it's paradoxical, given the Times's having launched a convincing and damning campaign to expose the deadly practice of driving while texting (or phoning), revealed in a 2003 U.S. study apparently blocked by the government.

Just as disturbing is our stubbornness in accepting that any technological distractions are dangerous when we're behind the wheel. When we drive, we have one job: to ferry ourselves and our passengers to a destination while keeping an enormous deadly weapon from hurting anyone or anything. Texting is never part of the job description.

But studies show that we're not very good at this job. The Times cited a 2003 Harvard study that blamed texting on 2,600 traffic deaths and 330,000 accidents resulting in moderate or severe injuries. And that was six years ago. Today, with far more advanced gadgets (and far more of them), some 75 billion text messages were sent in the U.S. in June, compared with just 15 billion per month in 2003, according to industry data. Drivers distracted by phone calls or texting, we're learning now, are by some estimates more impaired than those distracted by drunkenness.

It's highly troubling that the U.S. has apparently suppressed hundreds of pages of research on the issue and prevented attempts to study it further -- afraid of upsetting members of Congress, whose constituents all believe that cell phone use and texting is dangerous -- if someone else is doing it. But on Tuesday, public information requests by the Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen, two consumer groups, revealed such documents, along with proof that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration declined to release public warnings about the danger.

Today's response to the issue -- a smattering of state laws that allow conversations on hands-free devices -- endorses an equally hazardous option. Studies of distracted drivers reveal that it's the conversation that's the problem, not the handheld device. (Driving while talking with passengers isn't nearly as dangerous, apparently, because our brains create mental images of our conversation partners -- who, after all, can also alert drivers to danger.)

I expecting these stories to reveal the pressure of mobile-phone lobbyists, but there's surprisingly little of that; the industry has sat out the debate in recent years, the Times notes, partly because revenue is no longer driven by the use of minutes. The real culprit in the dangerous habit of using technology while we drive is us: you, me, and my cousin Chris, who this weekend admitted to having used his laptop while driving his long, boring route around Washington and Oregon as a pharmaceutical sales rep. (He's frequently on the phone too, of course.)

We don't want to give up driving, but even more, we don't want to give up our connectivity. Drivers who've had accidents or near-misses while texting or talking on the phone admit that they still can't resist an incoming message. It's an addiction, and we don't want anyone to tell us it's dangerous. And the more we feel the safety in numbers, the more we'll feel it's our right.

But dangerous behavior is never a right, especially when that behavior is almost always unneccessary and almost always can endanger lives in an instant. But as long as our freedom feels even more endangered than our lives, we're doomed to keep on texting, talking, and driving.

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