My professor recently called me and a few other doctors-in-training into his office to teach us about the findings of a peculiar case. It involved a teenager and text messaging.
The common fear about phone texting while driving is that you may not see a car coming and will get into an accident. This 21-year-old patient, however, was the passenger. "So what's wrong with that?" I asked. "What's wrong with texting if you are the passenger?"
Well, my professor said, this young lady became another casualty of the texting epidemic because she didn't see the collision happening and couldn't brace herself. The angle of her head was such that the airbag hit her obliquely and blinded her to some extent in both eyes.
We all discussed the unfortunate circumstances. The patient had a "choroidal rupture," a break in the inner layers of the eye. In this case, the break went very close to the center of her vision. We hope her sight will return but we don't know how much she'll get back, if any.
"I still text, but barely ever in the car," our patient says. "Now I'm watching the whole time. I'm much more aware."
Eveyone knows texting while driving is dangerous. But texting is just so seductive. I recently traded my slow Palm Centro phone for a BlackBerry Tour that has a crazy-fast keyboard. I often use text messages to communicate with my kids' babysitter, my husband, and my colleagues. Sometimes it's just easier to get off a quick message than to actually talk to someone.
While walking the stairs at the hospital, or sitting at red lights in the car, I'm often looking down trying to absorb the latest missive: the grocery list, the daily question "when are you coming home?" or a reminder to fill out a work form. When the star appears on the screen indicating a new message, it's hard to delay the gratification of new information.
This time of year, my husband is always on his phone checking his fantasy baseball scores as they stream in. And I was the one giving him hell about ignoring and endangering the rest of us. Now I'm worried about me.
The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize this year with a series called "Driven to Distraction." It described in great detail the problems associated with distracted driving. The casualties sound like an outbreak of a terrible disease. About 2,600 deaths each year on the road are due to cell phones, which cause about 570,000 accidents total.
Laws against driving and using your phone, like the one that's just now being enforced in Philadelphia, were delayed for years by an industry that suppressed data showing the magnitude of the problem. I didn't know that truckers often have a laptop running with an Internet connection while they're barreling down the highway.
We think of most technology in cars as a boon to safety. My SUV has side curtain airbags for all three rows of seats. It has antilock brakes that kick in when the road is slick and a costly stability control system to prevent flip-overs. Yet all that could be offset by the distractions of recreational and informational technology.
A paper in 2007 from the University of Iowa's engineering school suggests that one reason young people are more prone to car crashes, besides their inexperience, is that they are aggressive adopters of new technology, much like my now legally blind patient.
Is it unfair to blame technology? Long before cell phones, people were distracted when driving because they were eating a Whopper, yelling at their kids in the backseat or switching 8-track cassettes.
But texting has been shown to take the risk of distracted driving into a different orbit. A compelling study released last year by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute involved putting video cameras inside cars and trucks for six million miles' worth of driving. It found that simply talking on your phone barely increases the risk of an accident. But dialing your phone makes you six times as likely to have a collision.
As for my relatively new habit of texting? When composing a text message, the study found, drivers were 23 times more likely to crash. I have to remember that the next time I reach for my BlackBerry at a red light.