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Texting while driving: the new drunk driving

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The more she found, the angrier she became. Study upon study showed that talking on a cellphone while driving was far more dangerous than she'd realized – that a driver on a phone had the same reaction speed as someone legally intoxicated, that those talking on a phone behind the wheel are four times as likely to crash, that texting while driving is even more dangerous. And studies repeatedly showed that hands-free headsets – sometimes advertised as safer – were no less dangerous.

"I was just astonished," she says. Soon, Smith joined a growing movement of crash victims' families, academic researchers, and public-safety advocates campaigning against "distracted driving."

This public-safety movement has for years lobbied state legislatures to change driving laws, worked with schools and student groups, and pressured the federal government and industries to set new cellphone regulations. But momentum has picked up recently with some high-profile fatal crashes, including a number involving teens texting while driving. And last month, in what many saw as a coming of age for the movement, the US Department of Transportation hosted a distracted driving summit, where Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood called for action against what he termed a "deadly epidemic."

"Distracted driving is a menace to society. And it seems to be getting worse every year," he said.

But he and others say that the fight against distracted driving could be much harder than other public-safety efforts, including the anti-drunken-driving movement that swept the country in the 1980s.

Far more people talk on their cellphones and use other electronic gadgets in the car than drive drunk, safety officials say. A generation of text-happy teenagers are getting their driver's licenses, and established drivers are increasingly buying smart phones that allow for distracting activity beyond just text-ing and talking – GPS and entertainment devices, too, pull eyes and mental focus off the road.

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