Distracted driving is nothing new. People have been rubbernecking, applying makeup and searching for their favorite song on the radio since, presumably, the dawn of the automobile era.
But the rise of cell-phone use—particularly text messaging—to ubiquity over the last decade has significantly increased the prevalence of distracted driving and has led to an uptick in accidents that result from drivers taking their eyes off the road, according to numerous studies.
A study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found a driver is 23 times more likely to be involved in an accident while text messaging, and federal data shows a total of 16,000 deaths nationwide when drivers focus on reading or sending texts.
The problem is particularly acute for young people, who grew up with cell phones and typically view them as an extension of their bodies, even when they're behind the wheel.
In a new survey by Consumer Reports, one-third of drivers under 30 admitted to texting while driving in the past 30 days, compared to 9 percent of those over 30. Donato Vaccaro, the lead researcher on the study, said that while he was surprised by the prevalence of the issue, the generation gap is not shocking.
"In general, young people are more willing to take risks," Vaccaro said.
And those risks can have grave consequences. In one tragedy that made national headlines in 2007, five Rochester-area teens were killed when their SUV crashed head-on into a tractor trailer. The driver had sent a text moments before the crash. In February of this year, a bus driver in a suburb of Syracuse was accused of reading texts while ferrying a group of elementary school students.
In response to the growing problem, the Eastchester Civic Associations has made texting while driving the theme of its ninth annual Traffic Expo, which will take place May 21. Elliot Senderoff, the association's chairman, said raising awareness of the issue could decrease the number of tragic accidents.
"These things are taking away the best young people of our society," he said.
Vaccaro will be at the Expo handing out pamphlets that outline the findings of the Consumer Reports survey. The study found that just about everyone surveyed—94 percent—had witnessed another driver talking on the phone, while two-thirds had seen someone texting. partnered with Consumer Reports in authoring the pamphlet.
The expo, which is scheduled for Saturday in front of Eastchester Town Hall, will also feature exhibits on drunk driving, bicycle safety, toddler car-seat checks and tips for families to encourage older relatives to stop driving.
"People who speed and don't observe the rules are not strangers, but our neighbors, and they've got to be educated and change what they do," Senderoff said.
Currently, texting while driving in New York is a secondary violation, meaning a driver can only be ticketed if he or she is pulled over for something else, such as speeding. But a bill that has passed the Senate and is being worked through the Assembly would make it a primary violation punishable by a fine of up to $150.
“Most of the time you’re using two thumbs, plus you’re looking at the screen," said Sen. Carl Marcellino, a Long Island Republican. "If you’re driving, that fraction of a second that you take your eye off the road can be the difference between life and death."
The bill would also add cell-phone safety to the topics covered by educational material given to young people applying for a driver's license.
Vaccaro said that 83 percent of young people surveyed said they support the idea of increasing penalties for texting while driving.