As officials investigate whether the engineer sent messages, California's governor weighs a ban for drivers.
The nation's worst commuter rail disaster in four decades – a Metrolink collision with a freight train that killed 25 and injured 135 here Sept. 12 – is spotlighting the issue of the safety of text messaging in an age of hyper-connectivity.
Answers on what caused the accident may be months away but early reports that the engineer had sent text messages in the minute before the crash have put the debate on use of cellphones while driving front and center.
"It's far too early to say that text messaging was the cause of this crash," says Peter Knudson, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board. Phone records will have to be examined first, he says. "But since we know that cellphones are a distraction, you can bet that [Web] browsing and texting [via cellphone] will be the next key area of inquiry, not just talking."
California and some other states have already brought in laws to regulate cellphone use while driving, but policymakers have been slower to catch up with the consequences of the recent explosion in text messaging in the US.
About 75 billion SMS text messages were sent in June this year, representing an increase of 160 percent over June 2007, according to the mobile industry's trade association CTIA. That's an average of 2.5 billion messages a day.
Text-messaging is especially popular among young people. A recent survey conducted online by CTIA among teens aged 13-19 found that a majority (57 percent) view their cell phone as key to their social life and most view texting as a vital feature.