Deaths Related to Drivers Distracted by Cell Phone Use

October 14, 2010

The increase in texting while driving is estimated to have caused more than 16,000 additional road fatalities between 2001- 2007 according to new research published in the American Journal of Public Health.

The research, looked at data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), which records the causes of all U.S. road fatalities and matched it with trends in cell phone use and texting volumes to calculate the impact.

The research also found that “crashes increasingly involved male drivers driving alone in collisions with roadside obstructions in urban areas” – the types of crashes we have traditionally associated with drunk driving. This finding appears to be in line with research that indicates texting while driving is equivalent to driving under the influence.

“For teens over the last 20 years, [alcohol related] fatal accidents have dropped by about 60 percent. In that same amount of time other fatal crashes for teens have gone up by about 35 percent, so that now, distracted driving and other things that are non-alcohol related are eclipsing the total numbers of fatalities that you see with alcohol. We’ve just traded drunk driving for distracted driving” says David Strayer, a cognitive scientist at the University of Utah who has been involved in a number of studies measuring cell phone use and crashes.

Evidence continues to mount

A new report issued by the U.S. Transportation Department said 5,474 people died in 4,898 crashes linked to distracted driving in 2009. Of those, about 1,000 involved cell phones.

In another newly released survey, researchers from Harris Interactive found that  “Fewer teens view texting while driving as leading to fatal consequences as compared to drinking while driving,” according to a press release by State Farm who commissioned the survey.

“Of 14- to 17-year-olds who intend to have or already have a driver’s license, the survey found that 36 percent strongly agree that if they regularly text and drive they could be killed one day. In contrast, the majority of teens (55 percent) strongly agree that drinking while driving could be fatal.”

“The awareness gap becomes more pronounced among teens who admit to texting while driving versus teens who refrain from the practice. Among teens that have never texted while driving, 73 percent strongly agree they will get into an accident if they text and drive. Yet among teens that admit to texting while driving, only 52 percent strongly agree they will get into an accident as a result of the practice,” the agency said.

Research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found even higher texting frequency. Their data indicates that 81% of U.S. residents said they have used their cell phone while driving, and that of the 82% of 16- to 17-year-olds who have cell phones, 52% said they use them while driving.

It’s not just teens who are texting behind the wheel

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project released a report in Nov. of 2009 found 25% of 16 to 17yr-olds who have cell phones say they text while driving. However, perhaps the most disappointing finding from their research was that teens say their parents are also texting behind the wheel.

Pew found that “the frequency of teens reporting parent cell phone use behind the wheel in our focus groups was striking, and suggested, in many cases, that texting while driving is a family affair.”

The American Journal of Public Health article provides this conclusion: “Distracted driving is a growing public safety hazard. Specifically, the dramatic rise in texting volume since 2005 appeared to be contributing to an alarming rise in distracted driving fatalities. Legislation enacting texting bans should be paired with effective enforcement to deter drivers from using cell phones while driving.”



WebSafety’s CellSafety Product Review

August 31, 2010

I’ve had several consumers ask me recently about the company WebSafety and their new mobile phone product CellSafety. Here are my thoughts:

Company Impression:  problematic credibility

WebSafety’s development team has a strong law enforcement and prosecutorial background. This is both a strength and a weakness. While they’ve been ‘in the trenches’ to know the issues, their solutions are heavy handed.

To be clear, any company in the business of providing protection services to consumers has to first overcome one hurdle – convincing people that they need protection.  However, how a company goes about making that business case can vary dramatically.

WebSafety’s mission statement makes it clear from the start that they’ve chosen to go the fear and sensationalism route and it shoots their credibility to pieces right from their home page. “To enable parents to protect their children from the dangerous cellular and online worlds through advanced software systems.”

Neither the cellular nor the online worlds are dangerous; instead some elements within these have risks, and those risks range from low to high probability of occurrence and low to high potential consequences.

Our jobs as individuals and parents is to assess these risks as they relate to our own, or our children’s, unique circumstances and take appropriate measures. Fear messaging makes choosing appropriate measures more, rather than less, complicated and these messages therefore do more harm than good.

The CellSafety Product:

I am concerned about the lack of real information about the company’s CellSafety product. Beyond their dropdown bullet points (shown below), I can’t find any information that let’s me understand how these services work, what level of management I have over each feature, what level of transparency about the monitoring is provided to youth (and, keep in mind these could be used against a spouse, an ex- or other person as easily as against a child) – or even what “AND MUCH MORE…..” is.  There is no material about discussing safe texting with kids, or any educational material whatsoever.

Particular points of concern:

Their CellSafety Product: In a press release, CellSafety said it “uses proprietary technology to electronically detect when a car is moving at speeds above 10mph and prohibits the driver’s ability to send or read text and email messages or utilize the phone web browser.” In their bullet list they say “passengers can ask parents for permission!” presumably to override the automatic blocking of passengers ability to text, as all that can be detected by their product is that a phone is in a moving car, not whether the person trying to text is the driver.

  • What about legitimate cases where the passenger is using the driver’s phone? Blocking that could put the users at risk.
  • What stops the driver from using a passengers unblocked phone?
  • What happens if the passenger can’t contact their parent to get permission?

CellSafety also claims they can “ensure that a driver’s eyes are on the road and off their phone”. Really?

  • People play games on their phones while driving
  • People dial numbers when driving
  • People surf and read email when driving.

No outside element can ensure where the driver’s eyes are – or aren’t. And while I’m strongly against texting while driving, (see below for  blogs I’ve written on this topic) I think we’ve lost sight that ANY form of distracted driving is wrong. Should we get an product that will stop someone from applying mascara while driving, shaving while driving, yelling at kids in the back seat while driving, or being drunk off their rocker while driving?

The company mixes statistics in a manner that is sloppy, and misleading. In the same press release about their CellSafety product designed to block texting while driving, WebSafety states that “Distracted driving is one of the most serious, life-threatening practices on our nation’s roadways with almost 8,000 crashes related to distracted driving occurring daily in the United States.” I assume this is a true statement, but that is not a statistic about texting while driving – the problem they propose to solve – it’s a statistic about ALL distracted driving.

This statistical blurring continues with their CEO Rowland Day stating “Consumers mistakenly believe they will not be the victim of, or responsible for, a distracted driving incident which is why the CellSafety application is so vital in order to stop the deadly social obsession of texting-while-driving.” Again, the implication is that all distracted driving is texting when driving, and we all know that isn’t the case.

The CellSafety mobile application also includes additional features which inhibit texting in school via “No Texting Zones” in order to prevent scholastic cheating as well as notifications in real-time if users are sending or receiving inappropriate text messages.” There is nothing wrong with a kid texting while at school; in fact there are very legitimate reasons for doing so. Cheating is wrong. Texting when you should be participating is wrong. But texting during lunch? Texting your mother about after school plans? Getting a text from your father about where he’s going to pick you up from? Sending your mom a reminder to bring your soccer shoes?

What I see is a product that is more designed to ‘catch’ than to educate kids. That hasn’t gotten past the sledgehammer approach to blocking, filtering and reporting to design meaningful services that create constructive, collaborative safety environments for families.

I think the intent behind the company and their services is good, the execution is lacking.

Additional blog posts on Texting and Driving:


With Sexting, Sexcam sessions, and Indiscretion, Comes Sextortion

August 20, 2010

It was inevitable that the number of sextortion cases reaching the public’s attention would climb as the spread of sexting and sexcam sessions continues unabated.

Sextortion – the combination of the words “sex” and “extortion isn’t a web phenomenon, extortionists and blackmailersi have used their knowledge of other’s infidelities, or possession of compromising images, videos, phone calls, and letters since close to the dawn of man. Perhaps the most recent public example was when a former CBS producer threatened to disclose David Letterman’s history of affairs unless Letterman paid him $2 million.

But the web has certainly increased access to the types of content and communications that many would rather not have exposed, and there is no shortage of slime-balls hoping to leverage that reluctance towards exposure for their benefit.

A few recent internet sextortion cases in the news should give a wake up call to anyone who has been foolish enough to place themselves in a compromising position, or thinks there is little risk in doing so in the future.

Case 1: The paraplegic programmer who, over a two year period, victimized at least 186 women and 44 girls according to the FBI who became involved in the case in 2009. According to the Forbes article More Details Emerge On ‘Sextortion’ Hacker Suspect, 31-year-old Mexican native, and Santa Ana, Calif. resident, Luis Mijangos, gained control of user’s computers by using Trojans disguised as songs on peer-to-peer file sharing networks. Once he took control of the PC, he would search for sexually explicit photographs and financial information, and attempt to use what he found to further extort pornographic videos from his victims.

According to the news story, the creep is also accused of “using keyloggers to gain access to social networking sites, e-mail, credit card numbers, and so forth to gain further information to perpetuate the scheme as well as make purchases. He sent malware via instant messenger to the contacts of his victims to infect more computers, tallying more than 100 infected in all.”

Case 2: The 19-year-old punk from Maryland who captured photos of a 17-year-old girl flashing her breasts on a webcam in an internet chat room and threatened to post the pictures to her MySpace friends unless she posed for more explicit pictures and videos for him. The story, reported by the Associated Press, details how Treavor Shea of Mechanicsville, Maryland began sending threatening e-mails to the young lady and how, under the threat of humiliation in front of her friends on MySpace, she on at least two occasions did pose for more explicit pictures and videos before involving law enforcement.

Case 3: Auburn University graduate and church choir boy Jonathan Vance, of Alabama has received an 18 year sentence for attempting to extort nude photos of at least 50 teenage girls and young women in three states. The story by the Birmingham News reports that the 24 year-old perp admitted to sending threatening e-mails on Facebook and MySpace demanding  nude photos from victims in Alabama, Pennsylvania and Missouri.

Case 4: Boy who poses as a girl. 18-year-old Anthony Stancl of New Berlin Wisconsin, pretended to be a female on Facebook to trick male classmates into sending him photos. He convinced at least 31 boys in his high school to send him naked cell phone pictures. He then blackmailed at least 7 of the boys – ages 15-19 – into performing sex acts by threatening to expose the original nude photos to the rest of the school if they did not meet his demands. The Journal Sentinel reported that more than 300 naked photos and movie clips of New Berlin boys and another 600 professionally made pornographic movies involving children were found on the computer.

This was not the first time that Stancl has been in trouble with the law because of sexual crimes. During his sentencing hearing, prosecutors noted that Stancl had been convicted of having sexual contact with a 3-year-old boy when he was just 13-years-old.

There is no system or entity that tracks this form of crime specifically, and most unfortunately will not get reported. But for every one case of extortion, there are thousands of cases where disgruntled friends, ex’s, and others simply choose to be vicious and publicize sexualized images of others to watch their humiliation.

And with the Increase in Sexting Among Teens AND Their Parents expect to see more of  this type of crime.

Protecting your kids – and yourselves

There are three aspects to any discussion about sexual actions online – whether that discussion is with youth or adults:

A) Why no one should participate in sexual exchanges online. Focus on helping youth see past their naïveté surrounding the implications of sending sexual messages, photos, videos, chats, or describing sexual activities they’ve been doing offline. Any of these actions can be, and likely will be, something they regret at some point in the future, even if they aren’t being extorted. Help youth understand that:

  1. Once an image has been shared, the sender has lost all control of where that will be distributed.
  2. The girl- or boyfriend of today, is highly likely to share it with friends (a main point of having the photo for most youth is to show people you have it).
  3. When breakups occur, the malicious dissemination of an ex’s nude image(s) is an all too common experience.
  4. The humiliation caused by having the victim’s image(s) disseminated can be devastating. Simply knowing their ‘private’ photo is seen and shared by potentially millions of people – possibly including family members, school teachers, their religious leaders, neighbors, and pedophiles – and that the image may haunt them forever can be overwhelming. In several extreme, tragic cases, girls like Jessica Logan, and Hope Witsell have committed suicide.
  5. The photos may be used for blackmail or sextortion as in the cases listed above.
  6. The photos may be classified as child pornography, and the image taker, the image recipient, and any other recipients may be charged and registered as sex offenders – a label that will follow them through life. “Sexting” Leads to Child Porn Charges for Teens, ‘Sexting’ Teens May Face Child Porn Charges
  7. The photos may carry consequences that include getting kicked off of teams, squads, and leadership roles in schools and extracurricular programs. And may result in the loss of scholarships – or cause that the student not be considered for scholarships. Teens may also lose their jobs.
  8. The photos may increase the likelihood of becoming a victim of physical abuse.

B) Getting help if youth (or adults) are the target of sextortion. Unfortunately, not everyone will heed the advice to refrain from sexual exchanges online, and so understanding how to minimize the damage is critical – whether it be for your child, or to give them the information that will help another child.

  1. Extortionists extort. If they have one compromising image, video, or piece of information and they see opportunity in threatening a victim with it, giving them what they ask for is just providing more ammunition, It will not stop the exploitation – in most cases it will simply allow the extortionist to increase their demands.
  2. Call it extortion, sextortion, or blackmail, it’s illegal.
  3. Get help. For minors, no matter how embarrassing the incident, parents will in most cases be the best place to first turn to for help. Depending on the situation, it may be resolved through parents, or with school involvement. Where sexual demands are made, it is a matter for immediate law enforcement involvement.
    1. Parents, this puts a clear responsibility on you to create an environment where your children can be safe coming to you for help. In these kinds of situations some people are tempted to blame the victim, that’s off target. They are the victim of a crime and they need your help with that crime. The question of why they chose to share compromising photos, video, or information is entirely separate and should be handled separately – and calmly.
    2. Youth, if your parents aren’t going to help you through this, get a teacher, your religious leader, or another trusted adult to help you. Few teens – and fewer younger kids are comfortable going to the police themselves.

C) Extorting others is WRONG. Unfortunately, for a segment of the population, wielding power over others is alluring. But it’s never right, and if it becomes extortion, or blackmail,  it is illegal. The penalties for sexual extortion are even more severe.

  1. Help teach that this is unacceptable behavior because it harms others.
  2. If the welfare of others isn’t something your child – or you – care about, get professional help. And consider the following:
    1. Extortion and blackmail are federal crimes.
    2. Anthony Stancl faced 293 years in prison if he had been convicted of the full 12 counts against him. His actual sentence is 15-years in prison and another 13-years of extended supervision for his crimes. He will be 33 before he leaves prison, and 46 before he is no longer under legal supervision. He will always carry the registered sex offender label.
    3. Jonathan Vance was sentenced to 18 years in prison, making him 42 when he is released. He will be a registered sex offender, and will serve the rest of his life on supervised probation. He will be barred from having any contact with minors, and will only have restricted computer access.
    4. The cases of Treavor Shea and Luis Mijangos have yet to go to trial, but Luis Mijangos also faces deportation.

[i] The terms “extortion” and “blackmail” are commonly used interchangeably, even though they are distinct concepts. According to the definition provided by, extortion means forcing someone to do something, usually give up something valuable under threats of injury, death or other illegal harm. Blackmail means specifically obtaining something of value under the threat to disclose something shameful or disreputable about a person. This can be true even if it would not have been illegal to simply make the reputation-damaging information public.


Traveling This summer? Know What Cell Phone Laws Apply

July 21, 2010

Before crossing state or county lines on your summer road trip, take a moment to learn what the cell phone laws are for any area you plan on visiting.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, talking on a cell phone while driving is now illegal in 8 states, the District of Columbia and many jurisdictions, and texting while driving is banned for all users in 30 states and the District of Columbia.

States that ban talking on cell phones when driving include California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington and the District of Columbia. In Utah, talking while driving is illegal only when the driver is also committing another moving violation other than speeding.

Even where states have not implemented bans, restrictions may apply by jurisdiction. Localities that have enacted restrictions on cell phone use include: Oahu, HI; Chicago, IL; Brookline, MA; Detroit, MI; Santa Fe, NM; Brooklyn, North Olmstead, and Walton Hills, OH; Conshohocken, Lebanon, and West Conshohocken, PA; Waupaca County, WI; and Cheyenne, WY.

States that ban texting when driving are highlighted in green on the map below, states shown in blue have restrictions for some driver segments, like young drivers and bus drivers. (For a full description of laws, see the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety‘s interactive maps)

Stay safe

Regardless of the legality of talking or texting while driving, numerous studies have made it clear that driving while talking on a cell phone (hand-held or hands-free), or texting significantly increases your accident risk. Consider the following stats:

  • Using a cell phone while driving, whether it’s hand-held or hands-free, delays a driver’s reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent. (Source: University of Utah)
  • Driving while using a cell phone reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent. (Source: Carnegie Mellon)
  • Nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted driver, and more than half a million were injured. (Source: NHTSA)
  • Drivers who use hand-held devices are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. (Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)
  • The annual cost of crashes caused by cell phone use is estimated at $43 billion (Source: Harvard Center for Risk Analysis).

This summer, may your trips be distraction free and your memories unencumbered by accidents.


Talking and Driving, a Dangerous Mix

January 23, 2010

The New York Times has compiled a great series of articles on the use of mobile phones while driving. It is a list worth perusing as distracted drivers, particularly those under 30, continue to wreak havoc on the roads.

For a listing of state-by-state cell phone driving laws, go to the Governors Highway Safety Association’s Cellphone Driving Laws Page.

Also, check out my previous blogs:


Teens Report High Levels of Texting While Driving – Parents Poor Role Models

November 18, 2009

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project released a report Monday that found 25% of 16 to 17yr-olds who have cellphones say they text while driving.

The study also found that nearly half of Americans ages 12 to 17 say they’ve been in cars with someone who texted while behind the wheel.

However, perhaps the most disappointing finding was that teens say their parents are also texting behind the wheel. Pew found that “the frequency of teens reporting parent cellphone use behind the wheel in our focus groups was striking, and suggested, in many cases, that texting while driving is a family affair.”

Research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found even higher texting frequency. Their data indicates that 81% of U.S. residents said they have used their cellphone while driving, and that of the 82% of 16- to 17-year-olds who have cellphones, 52% said they use them while driving.

Teens know the risks – just think it won’t happen to them

“Many teens understand the risks of texting behind the wheel,” said Amanda Lenhart, co-author of the Pew report, “but the desire to stay connected is so strong for teens and their parents that safety sometimes takes a back seat to staying in touch with friends and family.”

For more information about the risks of texting and driving (like the stat saying Drivers who text behind the wheel have a 23 x greater risk of crashing), read my blogs:


Driving While Texting: Try the Gauge Your Distraction Game

September 14, 2009

R u sure u can txt & drive w/o trouble? Do you find yourself arguing with a spouse/child/carpool driver about the risks of texting and driving?

Now, check this out. The New York Times has created an enlightening game that measures your driving reaction time when affected by external distractions. Try it, and then recommend it to others.