David Sehorn walked through Hite Collision Repair Center’s back lot where rows of banged-up cars sat. Front bumpers were crushed, air bags hung out of steering wheels and a line of busted fenders leaned against the fence.
Spring used to be a quiet season for the repair center — the calm in between hazardous winter roads and the vehicle scrapes that come with college students returning to Kansas University in late summer.
“We don’t have to worry about a downtime anymore,” said Sehorn, the shop’s general manager.
Each week, two to five cars come to Hite Collision, casualties of texting-while-driving accidents.
“Now, it’s just constant because people text and drive every day,” Sehorn said.
The text-damaged vehicles seen by Sehorn far outnumber those recorded by local law enforcement agencies.
In 2008, the Kansas Department of Transportation reported that distraction from cell phone use contributed to 394 accidents in the state, and 33 of those accidents were in Douglas County.
“It’s hard to get a good number,” KDOT’s Traffic Safety Manager Pete Bodyk said of data kept on texting-while-driving accidents.
In 2003, Kansas law enforcement agencies started indicating on accident reports when a driver was distracted by a cell phone. But the form doesn’t specify texting. And, most of the time, police officers rely on drivers being honest about their cell phone use.
“A lot don’t admit to that,” Bodyk said.
In accidents with serious injuries or deaths, cell phone records can be subpoenaed, Lawrence Police Sgt. Bill Cory said. Sometimes witnesses will pass on information, and it’s routine for officers to ask if cell phones were in use.
“It’s difficult to track, unless someone there tells us,” Cory said.
For Sehorn, it’s much easier to get the truth, besides the fact that he has a good eye for the tell-tale signs of a texting fender-bender.
“If it looks like something was happening due to text messaging, I’ll ask them, ‘Were you text messaging?’ And this is in private, usually away from the insurance companies, of course, and maybe their mother and father, too,” he said.
Countries that have better data and reporting methods for tracking cell phone involvement in accidents also have stronger laws against using them while driving, said Paul Atchley, a KU associate professor of psychology.
“It’s tough to get the data when you aren’t collecting it. So it’s difficult for us to use data as an argument because you just aren’t looking for it,” Atchley said.
This legislative session, Kansas lawmakers have discussed proposals to make texting while driving illegal.
Backing that ban is KDOT. As part of a campaign to persuade people to stop texting while driving, KDOT has printed posters, urged drivers to sign Oprah’s No Phone Zone pledge on Facebook and held a news conference that featured a 16-year-old high school student who crashed her fully-loaded Malibu while checking a text message.
As of last week, 25 states had passed laws against texting while driving.
What worries Atchley is the newest generation of drivers and its propensity for texting.
In a recent survey of 400 college students, Atchley found that 95 percent of them drive and text at the same time.
“Basically, everyone at KU who drives and owns a cell phone texts while driving at least some of the time,” Atchley said.
In his study, Atchley found that students had different standards for engaging in texting.
• About 70 percent said they would initiate a text conversation while driving.
• Another 11 percent said they would initiate a text while sitting at a stop light.
• About 84 percent said they would reply to a text while driving.
• Another 11 percent said they would reply to a text while sitting at a stop light.
• About 98 percent of students said they would read a text while driving.
The findings are scary for Atchley, who says that texting while driving is an epidemic.
“They represent the future of our roadways,” Atchley said. “If 98 percent of them are texting and driving, think about what the roadways are going to look like in 10 years.”
Previous research has estimated that texting while driving is six times more dangerous than driving drunk. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration attributed 6,000 deaths and 500,000 injuries to distracted driving in 2008.
“It’s a tragedy in the making,” Atchley said.
A generation of texters
Sending roughly 100 text messages a day, KU freshman Christina Gibson is among the generation of drivers Atchley finds so concerning.
Gibson no longer has to look at the keyboard when she types. And those texts help her firm up last-minute plans before going out at night.
She admits to narrowly avoiding a few wrecks with her texting. And her parents hate that she does it.
“Um, out of habit,” Gibson said when asked why she texts while driving. “It’s one of those things where you don’t think it is going to happen to you until you look up and you are like, ‘Oh, wow, I almost rear-ended that person.’”
Friend and fellow freshman Annie Pauls can vouch to that fact.
“She does text a lot. And sometimes I am scared in the passenger seat,” Pauls said.
Pauls has tried to curb her driving and texting, mainly because her parents are “hard-core advocates” against it. And she has seen the Oprah Winfrey special that pointed out “no message is that urgent that it could put someone’s life at risk.”
“I’m guilty of sending back that text, which I feel bad about. I shouldn’t,” Pauls said.
Like Pauls and Gibson, the students Atchley surveyed knew texting and driving was risky, even more hazardous than talking on the phone. But they did it anyway.
What Atchley found most disturbing was the tendency for students who were texting and driving to change their perception of how risky the roads were.
Take a freeway, for example. When reading a text, students associated a freeway with intense driving conditions. When replying to a text, they compared it to normal traffic conditions. And when sending out that first text, those surveyed classified the roadway as calm.
“If you do something that you know is something you shouldn’t be doing, you have two choices: change your behavior or change your attitude,” Atchley said. “What we are finding is people change their attitudes and cognition rather than their behavior.”
Quickly becoming the primary way to communicate, texting is addictive for younger generations, Atchley said. His advice for students is to throw their phones in the trunk before getting behind the wheel.
“Because if it goes off, you are going to answer it,” he said.
Sehorn, who sees the results of texting and driving at his repair shop, agrees the habit is addictive.
Case in point, the story of a young woman who took her car to the shop just last week.
Sehorn relayed the woman’s explanation: “I wasn’t texting. No, the guy in front of me was. The light turned green, everyone took off. He didn’t leave because he was texting. He sat at the green light. So I rear-ended him.”
“I said, ‘That’s your fault though because you rear-ended him,’” Sehorn replied.
“I was reading my text, but I wasn’t texting,” she told Sehorn.
To Sehorn, there’s little difference.