Text messaging is a lot like like rock and roll music. Young folks love it, and their parents find it irritating. It is, at this stage, primarily an aspect of youth culture, and with its odd abbreviations, used apparently to avoid exhausting the thumb muscles, it can seem impenetrable. For example, “I see you” condenses to “i c u” for seasoned text messagers.

It is also a medium that resonates with youth culture, largely because it is so cutting edge and modern. This connection was clear to Barack Obama’s campaign staff, as evidenced by the announcement of Joe Biden as Obama’s running mate via large-scale text messaging. Text messaging is instantaneous, and anyone with a cell phone and a weekly allowance can use it.

Yes, some have complained that students text message in class,and thereby miss things they should be learning. In terms of social interaction, it has been suggested that texting, like instant messaging (or IM’ing) and email, retards social development, since such distant, electronic communication cuts off any possibility of learning to read and appreciate social cues, such as body language, facial expression and tone of voice. But, as we have come to see in recent weeks, that is the least of our worries when it comes to the downside of text messaging.

People sending and reading text messages from their cell phones are being killed or seriously injured with frightening frequency. Of course, it is not the text messaging by itself that is dangerous, but the circumstances under which people choose to avail themselves of this technology. We have all seen them, and many of us have been them: the people text messaging, heads down, eyes focused on their cell phones, while navigating busy city crosswalks; the people driving cars on congested streets and highways, one hand on the steering wheel, one hand on the keyboard of their cell phones, and their eyes frequently leaving the road to focus on the screen of their cell phone. Is it any wonder that pedestrian text messagers are being hit by cars? Should we be surprised when distracted drivers plow into other cars or pedestrians? In my own experience, I have witnessed countless pedestrian vs. pedestrian accidents on New York City sidewalks, when a text messager (or text receiver) is walking, head down, apparently oblivious to other pedestrians and where such pedestrians might need to walk to. Luckily, these little brush ups tend not to result in anything serious. But, give it time. Sooner or later, one of these self-absorbed souls will knock over a frail, elderly person, or upset a baby carriage, causing grave injury to the more vulnerable users of city sidewalks.

Although it is still under investigation, there is at least some evidence suggesting that the driver of one of the trains involved in a recent collision that resulted in multiple fatalities in Los Angeles was texting when his train crashed, killing him. In a front-page article in Saturday’s New York Times (Sept. 20, 2008), the authors quoted a Silicon Valley “trend forecaster” who declared “the act of texting automatically removes 10 I.Q. points.”

The bottom line is that text messaging is causing preventable injuries. In my home county of Westchester (New York), it is now illegal to text while driving. That is a start in the right direction, and neighboring counties should take notice and emulate Westchester’s action. But what about pedestrians? Most of us wouldn’t walk down a busy city sidewalk or street reading a captivating novel. You could end up falling through an open manhole, or under the wheels of a city bus. You could also send an elderly woman balanced on a cane onto the concrete sidewalk, causing her to fracture her hip, her arm or her skull. But text messaging, with its ease of use and instantaneous results, is as captivating as any book, and probably more so. And yet, users walk down the sidewalk, in its thrall, oblivious to the danger to themselves and other pedestrians. The law must catch up to the reality here, and texting while walking among others, that is, in city settings, malls and the like, should be outlawed. If you want to text while you’re climbing a mountain out in the wilderness, go ahead! You might step off a cliff and plunge to your death, but you won’t hurt innocent people in the process.

And from my professional perspective, I wonder what will happen when the lawsuits start. If Mrs. Jones, driving her car, runs down Mr. Smith, who was crossing the street, because Mrs. Jones was texting while driving, who is responsible for Mr. Smith’s injuries? Is it Mrs. Jones, because she chose to text while driving, knowing that she might become distracted? Is it the cell phone service provider who enabled Mrs. Jones to engage in such reckless conduct? Is it Mr. Jones, Mrs. Jones’ husband, who chose to text her the news that their house had been foreclosed on due to the mortgage crisis?

All such suits are avoidable, if our government representatives act now to address this problem. And in the meantime, save the texting for the classroom or the boardroom. You may lose something in the process, but at least it won’t be your life.

We’re here to listen.

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