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A man works his phone as he drives through traffic in Dallas on Feb. 26, 2013. / LM Otero, AP

This nation's talking/texting-while-driving epidemic caught up with me this past weekend in the most violent way.

Moments after leaving USA TODAY's offices in suburban Virginia on Saturday evening, I hopped on Interstate 66 for a quick drive home. The skies were overcast, a light mist was falling, and the sun was beginning to set.

A young woman speeding along in the lanes behind me was lost in a phone conversation when the 2,500 pounds of metal she was piloting slammed into my vehicle from behind.

I never even heard the tires squeal. Her brakes didn't strain - because she hadn't applied them.

After we drove our cars to the shoulder, she confessed two things to me: She had been driving for only two months and, naively, admitted that she was just finishing up a conversation with her friend when she hit me. Whether by phone or text, it matters not.

We all have stories of watching motorists so lost in their devices or conversations that they might as well be in some other place. Mentally, they are.

Statistics confirm how bad things have gotten:

? About 660,000 drivers in the USA are using handheld cellphones while driving at any moment during daylight hours. This number has held steady since 2010, according to the National Occupant Protection Use Survey.

? More than half of drivers - 55% - admit to using a mobile phone at least some of the time while driving, according to Expedia's 2014 Road Rage Report, a survey of 1,001 licensed drivers conducted this past spring.

? Accidents as a result of distracted driving are too often fatal - 3,328 people died in such crashes in 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and 421,000 were injured.

State laws have been playing catch-up, and it's now illegal to text while driving in every state except Arizona, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma and Texas. A just-published report in the August Journal of Public Health found that such primary texting bans have led to a 3% decline in traffic deaths among all age groups.

Such bans targeting young drivers have coincided with an 11% drop in fatalities among 15- to 21-year-olds. Yet enforcement of these laws has been scarce and uneven at best.

In my case, once the state trooper sent us on our way, the adrenaline of the moment subsided and the pain it had masked quickly descended on me. I ended up heading to the ER for X-rays and medication. Before I left the hospital to drive to the pharmacy, my wife texted me, "Be safe!"

That's the thing. I was being safe.

I'm one of the lucky ones. Lucky that my car protected me, lucky that I was rear-ended and not hit head-on, lucky that the car seat for our 7-month-old son sat empty, rather than cradling his delicate frame.

My experience - though frightening and painful - is in many ways the best-case scenario. Too many parents are burying teens whose fatal mistake was to respond to an incoming text. Too many families are shattered because of the selfish impulses of a tech-crazed culture mesmerized by glowing screens.

After I got home and took Valium and a muscle relaxant before settling into bed, the other driver had the audacity to text me with a request that I not go through her insurance company with the claim.

"I intend to have a clean record," she wrote.

And I intended to arrive home and pick up my son, but could not.

I ignored her request.

Here's the thing: No matter how careful, conscientious and deliberate we are in going about our daily lives, we're vulnerable to someone else's reckless choices.

And there's a good chance that we'll never even hear the tires squeal.

Siniff is a senior editor at USA TODAY. Follow him on Twitter @jmsiniff.



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Voices: Distracted driving hits home - hard

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