Texting Can Wait. Awareness Cannot.
I'm on my way.
I love you.
The first message is what Xzavier’s mother was told had left her son, now 8, paralyzed from the diaphragm down and on life support. The second is the last missive Chandler sent before hitting an Amish buggy, killing three, ages 3, 5 and 17.
These are two of four tales that comprise the documentary, "From One Second to the Next" by director Werner Herzog. AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile paid for the 35-minute film. It's part of AT&T's "It Can Wait" campaign to curb texting and driving, which the three other carriers joined this spring. The documentary, which will be distributed to more than 40,000 schools, already has more than 1.9 million hits on YouTube in the two weeks since it was posted. Steven Hyden, writing for Grantland, called it "quite likely the greatest driver’s ed film of all time." The New York Times devoted an editorial to it, remarking, "Maddening and moving, it may be the first example of a new genre: the arthouse public service announcement."
Statistics on texting and driving are alarming and widely ignored. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,331 people were killed and 387,000 injured in 2011 in motor vehicle crashes implicating a distracted driver -- a category that includes texting, eating, grooming and using a navigation system, among other actions. But texting is a triple threat, requiring a driver’s mind, hands and eyes. In 2011, 11 percent of drivers ages 15 to 19 in fatal accidents were reported to have been distracted; for 21 percent of those, a phone was the culprit.
Herzog doesn't rely on statistics. He employs just one, at the film's beginning: "Over 100,000 accidents a year involve drivers who are texting. The numbers are climbing sharply." With that as ominous prelude, he goes into stories of trivial messages spurring tremendous tragedy. "I don't need to show blood and gore and wrecked cars," the director told NPR, insisting that he wanted to show the “interior side” of the stories: “It's a deep raw emotion -- the kind of deep wounds that are in those who were victims of accidents and also in those who are the perpetrators."
The film plumbs the depths of interpersonal responsibilities. Xzavier's tearful mother tells of how she can no longer send her son out to play, how her dreams of screaming "X, X, X, X, X" from the stands at football games are shattered. Chandler reads aloud an inspirational letter from the father whose three children he killed, with the words "I always wonder if we take enough time with our children" juxtaposed against a scene of Chandler and his wife leading their young daughter by the hands. Megan details her journey from raw hatred of Reggie, whose texting helped precipitate her father's death, to an on-screen embrace. John speaks of driving the truck that hit the car with Megan's father in it -- after a texting Reggie sent that latter vehicle spinning. The boundaries defining "perpetrator" overlap with those defining "victim."
Tragedy has its practical effects. A teenager's liability insurance pays for only $50,000 of the more than $1 million in hospital bills that result when Debbie is hit. (When Debbie talks on film, her halting speech requires subtitles.) The driver was sentenced to 30 days in jail, five months under house arrest and five years of probation. Reggie also spent 30 days in jail. His crash helped spur Utah to pass in 2009 what the New York Times called, "the nation’s toughest law to crack down on texting behind the wheel" -- with sentences of up to 15 years behind bars.
Forty-one states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands now prohibit all drivers from texting and driving. (Some others ban only novices and/or school bus drivers.) But it's a tremendously hard temptation to resist and an equally difficult law to enforce. New legislation to combat texting while driving has initiated research suggesting that such bans may actually increase accidents, perhaps because drivers go to greater lengths to conceal their devices and their furtive glances.
Where legislation fails, perhaps technology can succeed. Smartphone applications have been developed to read text messages and e-mails aloud, send auto-replies when a vehicle is moving above a certain speed, or alert parents when a child's phone is unlocked in a moving car. But such remedies are not foolproof, and can typically be turned off or uninstalled.
Diverted eyes, minds and hands must be refocused on the road through enhanced technology, laws and awareness. For Herzog, the last is crucial. "What's more important than legislation is awareness," he said in an interview with CNN. "You can't legislate stupidity."
(Zara Kessler is an assistant editor and producer for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)