The data is telling, and the legislation is pending, but are drivers getting the message?
According to a study done by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, the risk of crash while text messaging is 23.2 times more than for non-distracting driving.
"All it comes down to is common sense, especially on the roadway," said Don Guarino, chief of operations for the Trumbull County Sheriff's Office.
Tribune Chronicle photo illustration / Chuck Rogers
Ohio House Bill 261 proposes that texting while driving would be a secondary traffic stop offense, but a driver must be pulled over for something else first.
Guarino said it takes just 3 to 5 seconds to be distracted. According to the VTTI study, research showed that text messaging had the longest duration of eyes-off-road time - 4.6 seconds over a 6-second interval. This equates to a driver traveling the length of a football field at 55 mph without looking at the roadway.
"Especially if you have small children in the car with you, why would you take a chance of jeopardizing the safety of your children?" said Guarino. "Why would you jeopardize your family?"
However, a 2008 survey of drivers conducted by Nationwide Insurance found that 40 percent of those 30 and younger who own cell phones said they send or read text messages while driving.
Audrey Robinson, 23, of Warren, said she texts a lot while driving. It's never been a problem, she said, adding that people who text don't have to look at their phones.
"People who can't multi-task should not text and drive," she said.
Four pieces of legislation related to cell phone use while driving are pending in Ohio. House Bill 261, for example, would make texting a secondary stop traffic offense, meaning a driver must first be pulled over for something else.
Niles City Council in October tabled legislation concerning the use of cell phones while driving.
Kristen O'Gorman, 26, of Niles, said she wondered how police would enforce a possible texting ban, since people don't have to look at their phones while they text.
"I don't even know how they would be able to uphold it," she said of the law.
Texting while driving is sometimes necessary for her job, O'Gorman said, and she'd rather look at a text than call someone.
"I think it's safer than actually being on the phone," she said.
Julie Stack, 45, of Cortland, admitted to occasionally, but rarely, texting while driving. She limits it because of past experience.
"One time, I was looking for something and went over to the side of the road," she said.
According to the VTTI study, the risk of crash when reaching for an object is 1.4 times more than nondistracted driving.
Driver inattention was one of the top causes of crashes in 2008, said Staff Lt. Ken Kocab of the Office of Government Affairs and Public Information for the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
Kocab said the Patrol supports any actions that would promote safety on the roadways, but for now the only kind of numbers they can actually track are general instances of distracted driving. He said they are looking at modifying crash reports to statistically gather that information, but it's in the early planning stages.
"Every time someone takes their eyes off the roadway, even if it's momentarily, they could possibly put someone's life in danger," Kocab said.
Lt. Joe Dragovich of the Southington Post of the Patrol said he's seen people reading books and newspapers, putting on makeup, eating and holding pets on their lap. After a crash, they may report that they were playing with radio, they dropped their cell phone, or they dropped a cigarette.
"The distraction is the key," Dragovich said. "Texting is just another distraction. I think a newspaper scrolled out across the steering wheel is much worse."
Chief Tim Bowers of the Warren Police Department thinks texting and driving is comparable to drinking and driving - it should be avoided at all costs.
"You might not really see it - all we see is the results of it," he said, listing violations such as running a red light.
He said that texting might be difficult to spot because it's the aftermath of a driver's inattention that is usually witnessed by an officer.
"Our brains are set up to do one thing at a time. It's like 'shut up so I can see,'" he said. "You need to concentrate to parallel park or something, so what do you do - you turn the radio off."
Texting and driving at the same time? "That's just a bad, bad idea," he said.
Kocab reported that in 2008 in Ohio, 20 people were killed and 2,387 were injured because drivers took their eyes off the roadway.
This past Tuesday, a 19-year-old driver in a Ford Focus hit head-on a tanker truck fully loaded with milk on state Route 158 in Mercer County, Pa.
The Pennsylvania State Police reported in a release that the young woman driving the car was distracted as she was texting on her cell phone and drifted into the other lane. She had to be extricated from the vehicle, while the driver of the truck was not injured, according to the report.
VTTI recommended that texting be banned in moving vehicles for all drivers, since "this cell phone task has the potential to create a true crash epidemic if texting-type tasks continue to grow in popularity and the generation of frequent text message senders reach driving age in large numbers."
"We're concerned with anything that drivers do that is distracting," Kocab said, "from putting your makeup on, cell phone, reaching around, eating."
Ryan Myers, 31, of West Lake, said she is guilty of texting while driving.
"I have to admit, I do," she said.
Myers said she would follow a ban on texting. The city outside of Westlake, North Olmsted, has a ban on both talking and texting on a cell phone while driving, she said, and she already follows the laws when she drives there.
Robinson, however, said she would not follow a ban.
Bans and legislation aside, Guarino's recommendation is to the point:
"The best thing is not to text."
Sarah Sole contributed to this story