Hector Mata/AP

California Metrolink Crash Spurs Texting Bans Nationwide

September 19, 2008 05:02 PM
by Cara McDonough
California has made it illegal for train personnel to use a cell phone or other wireless device while on duty. Other cities and states may be soon to follow.

Examining the Texting-Driving Link

Soon after the Metrolink train crash that killed 25 people in southern California Sept. 12, reports began to surface that the engineer on duty that day had been sending text messages while operating the train.

The National Transportation Safety Board has since confirmed that the engineer, who failed to obey a red light, was sending and receiving texts, although investigators have yet to determine whether his cell phone use was the cause of the crash, NPR reports. The California Public Utilities Commission has, however, has banned all train personnel in California from using cell phones or other wireless devices while on duty in an emergency measure. Metrolink already prohibited use of cell phones while operating a train and has said that if the engineer was sending texts, it was in violation of existing rules.

Investigating the crash could take up to a year, but safety councils and lawmakers are not wasting time in addressing all potential causes of the deadly accident. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has already introduced legislation that would make automated safety equipment mandatory for all major railroads nationwide.

Addressing the high cost of these improvements, she asked, “Well, how expensive is the loss of human life?”

Whatever the cause of the crash, the incident has placed a new focus on train safety in the United States, as well as on the issue on sending text messages while driving, especially for professionals who drive trains and other vehicles used by the public.

John Zaimes, a lawyer with experience in transportation law, told The Christian Science Monitor that the crash will probably urge employers to create more specific rules regarding employees using cell phones while working. 

“Besides lawmakers, this [crash] will send waves of concern throughout the employment community addressing the use of BlackBerrys and text messaging,” he said. “This will be a wake-up call across several industries because in the absence of specific laws, the companies themselves expose themselves to very costly liability.”

MSNBC reports that, as the dangers of sending text messages while driving become more evident, it is likely that more states will begin to enact bans. Alaska, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey and Washington state, as well as the District of Columbia, have already placed bans on texting while driving.

Seven other states—New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Massachusetts, Nevada and Delaware—have bills pending that would “ban text messaging by all or specific segments of drivers,” said Russ Rader of the national Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Baltimore this week enacted a ban on the city’s 13,000 employees from using cell phones, digital music players or other personal electronic devices while driving on city business. A story on the proposed measure in The Baltimore Sun did not say whether or not the ban was inspired by the Metrolink train crash.

The policy is broader than any of the cell phone bans adopted in 19 states and the District of Columbia because it does not provide exemptions for speaker phones or other hands-free technology, according to the story.

As more laws crop up, officials may have to address the issue of enforcement.
Zaimes said to The Christian Science Monitor  that the problem with laws against texting or talking on cell phones is that law enforcement officers can’t see drivers in the act: “There are practical considerations that need to be addressed with these possible new laws. … How do you prove it?”

Background: The Metrolink crash

The crash occurred on Friday, Sept. 12, when a Metrolink commuter train, originating in Los Angeles and carrying 220 people, crashed head-on into a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth after the driver failed to heed a stop signal. 25 people, including the Metrolink engineer, were killed. More than 130 passengers were injured.

Days after the crash, investigators released information about the engineer possibly sending texts while driving the train. Kitty Higgins of the National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday that investigators had been in touch with two teenagers who told a local television station that they had been texting with the driver shortly before the crash. One of the teens said he was a train enthusiast who had been talking shop with the engineer.

Opinion & Analysis: Discussing a texting ban

The train crash has prompted some to speak out on the dangers of texting while driving.

In an editorial, the Los Angeles Daily News urges the state of California to follow the lead of the California Public Utilities Commission, and ban the use of personal cellular devices while driving a train: “This state bill banning texting will likely save lives and make the state’s freeways safer. The District of Columbia, Alaska, Minnesota and New Jersey have already banned texting while driving. California needs to join this list. C’mon, Governor. Sign it now.”

But will a ban work, or are people too set in their ways?

Brianna Horan writes for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that, although a spokesperson for Metrolink said he couldn’t believe the engineer would have been using a cell phone while driving the train, Horan could certainly believe it.

“I’ve seen bus drivers … chatting with only one hand on the wheel, ambulance operators driving with a phone to their ear and cops making calls in their cars,” she writes.
“No matter how textually advanced our thumbs have become, our brains haven’t been upgraded nearly as much as our phone capabilities.”

Related Topic: Cell phone bans

Bans and proposed bans on talking on cell phones or text messaging while driving, or even walking while texting, are cropping up across the nation.

Illinois is currently considering a bill, HB 4520, that would outlaw using wireless devices while crossing the street. The bill was introduced by Rep. Ken Dunkin, D- Chicago, who said that the legislation is “not laughable.” The practice of “text-walking” he said, has resulted in people walking into bicyclists, in-line skaters and even moving vehicles.

More common is a ban on using cell phones while driving. This summer, California and Washington joined New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington, D.C., in banning hand-held cell phone use for all drivers.

All of the states with bans do allow drivers to use headsets or hands-free devices in the car. Several studies have shown, however, that hands-free devices do little to improve driver safety because drivers minds’ are still not on the road.

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