September 12, 2010 marked the two-year anniversary of the tragic train accident in Chatsworth, California that took the lives of 24 passengers and an engineer and injured 102 others. At about 4:22 p.m. that day westbound Metrolink train 111 was involved in a head-on collision with eastbound Union Pacific Railroad (UP) freight train LOF65-12. The Metrolink train–consisting of a locomotive and three passenger cars–derailed its locomotive and lead passenger car, the impact causing the locomotive to telescope into the lead passenger coach by approximately 52 feet. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), there were two main factors that contributed to the accident: the Metrolink engineer failed to respond to a red signal because he was text messaging; and there was no positive train control system to stop the train short of the red signal. Despite this tragic train accident, and a statewide ban on texting-while-driving, Californians have continued to engage in this extremely dangerous form of distracted driving.
Since 2008, shortly before California prohibited the use of cell phones while driving, the Automobile Club of Southern California has been conducting studies of cell phone use and texting among drivers passing through Orange County. Taking random samples of 4,000 each time, the Auto Club documented a 70% decline in texting while behind the wheel within just four months of the January 2009 ban. The numbers, however, steadily climbed, with the Auto Club recording nearly twice as many drivers texting by July 2010. Whereas 1.4% of motorists were observed texting in mid to late 2008, 2.7% were caught in the act last July.
Out of all the drivers surveyed by the Auto Club, young women were observed texting-while-driving more frequently than young men; however, young men were more likely to use iPods and similar devices.
The drivers observed texting the most were young women, with 4.3% texting at any time. While only 2.1% of young men were seen texting messaging, 3.1% were observed using ipods and smart phones compared to only 1.6% of young women. In a poll conducted by Seventeen Magazine, 84% of teenagers reported that they were aware of the dangers of sending text messages from behind the wheel, while 86% admitted to engaging in the risky behavior despite knowing the dangers.
The Auto Club recommended increased public awareness of the dangers, more aggressive enforcement, and heavier penalties as a means of combating the risky activity.
Last August, Metrolink and its former train-operating contractor attempted to avoid a timely and costly trial by offering victims of the train accident a $200-million settlement. Whether they will accept the settlement or pursue a better one in court has yet to be resolved. The accident they endured was tragic and its cause unsettling to commuters everywhere-on highways, on railroads, and in the sky-as the death toll from texting-while-driving accidents has continued to rise in California.