Video dramatization shows deadly consequences of texting and driving

As experts prepare for distracted driving summit, 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 that can have an impact in educational settings, especially on young drivers.

The four-minute video, produced by local police in Gwent, Wales, in the U.K., has gone viral, attracting more than 1.5 million views on YouTube alone.

YouTube has restricted viewings to those over 18 because of its bloody, graphic nature and is also requiring registration to view it, although the video has been posted at the Gwent police Web Site and elsewhere without restrictions.

However, the restrictions worked inconsistently, sometimes requiring a registration and other times not.

In a statement on its site, the Gwent police said they are hoping the video can be used in schools across the U.K. to deter texting while driving.

The Gwent police helped facilitate the filming, including 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 career 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 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 other educational tools like it will likely be part of the discussion, along with technology measures and laws, said David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah who is speaking at the event. DOT officials have not posted details of the agenda for the summit, but have invited experts who cover a broad range of areas, including lawmakers and academics.

Strayer's research has found that using cell phones and texting can be as distracting as driving under the influence of alcohol at the level defined by many states. As such, he favors a broad range of approaches to prevent texting and driving, including the showing of harsh video dramatizations and testimony by accident 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 sugar coat accident fatalities? The video is memorable, and apparently has people talking so that is a good thing. It might just change a few people's behavior."

Strayer said that the plot line of the Gwent video is similar to an actual fatal crash in Utah in 2006 that left two scientists dead at the hands of a 19-year-old teenager, Reggie Shaw, who was texting while driving, causing him to swerve across the center line.

Shaw's sentence in the case included public service and talking 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 at its Zero Fatalities web site.

Cricket Communications Inc., a wireless service provider, has backed the Zero Fatalities effort in Utah and has organized a "Practice Safe Text" campaign, asking drivers to pledge not to text or e-mail behind the wheel, a spokeswoman said.

The nation's cellular industry, through the CTIA, 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 the Shaw 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 components, including education 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 have a device installed to 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, which is prohibited in five states.

Despite the upcoming DOT 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, including software such as ZoomSafer, available for free, to allow a driver to dictate text messages while driving. All the major carriers are selling handsets that offer similar voice-to-text technology.

Other technologies include Aegis Mobility DriveAssist, starting at $6 a month, which links to the handset's GPS to determine whether it is inside a moving vehicle so that the software can then log incoming calls and texts and respond that a driver is driving.

Key2SafeDriving , for $99, plus $10 a month, allows a parent or guardian to set up a profile that prevents calls and texts when a Bluetooth device inside the ignition key determines the vehicle is turned on and in motion.

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