The PR machine has been running rampant in recent months over the dangers related to texting while driving. What does this mean for first responders and enterprise users?

Yesterday at the Detroit Economic Club, AT&T Chairman Randall Stephenson introduced his company's awareness campaign to warn cell-phone users, especially young drivers, about the dangers of texting while behind the wheel. The carrier’s initiatives include banning its own workers from texting while driving, putting don't-text-while-driving messages on device packaging and public-service announcements.

Randall is participating in the two-day "Distracted Driving Summit" that kicks off today in Washington, D.C., and is hosted by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

The dangers of texting while driving are well documented in the many road accidents and deaths. Many experts believe it is as dangerous as driving drunk. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have banned texting while driving, and seven states and the District have banned talking on a mobile device. Numerous safety organizations, including the National Safety Council, have called for an outright ban on mobile-device use while driving.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation in July that would withhold Department of Transportation funds to states that fail to ban texting and e-mailing while driving.

The problem will only compound as smartphones like the iPhone make it easy to browse on the Internet, find directions and even order food.

But texting and e-mailing via the phone have become such a regular part of our everyday lives. In my 10-minute commute this morning, I found myself checking e-mail at least twice (at stoplights) and reminding myself each time that it's not allowed. Colorado, where I live, has a texting-while-driving ban.

But it isn't just about soccer/work-at-home moms like me and teens swerving down the road while texting. Will first responders and enterprise users be expected to refrain from using laptops and other wireless devices they have come to rely on in emergency and mission-critical situations?

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute conducted a study this summer, which found that heavy-truck drivers who texted while in motion were 23 times more likely to crash. The American Trucking Association (ATA), which is participating in this week's summit in D.C., is calling for policies that would reduce driver distraction, but doesn't want to see an outright ban on using mobile technology, which has turned into a work-efficiency tool for truckers, other enterprise workers and first responders. Long-haul truckers, for instance, use computers in their cabs to get directions and stay in contact with dispatchers.

"While ATA supports the objectives of the proposed legislation, we will work to ensure that the bill does not inadvertently require states to outlaw the use of truck-cab fleet-management systems that provide limited but necessary cargo-related information to professional drivers," ATA said in a statement regarding Schumer's proposed legislation.

Since October 2008, the ATA says it has advocated for policies that would minimize or eliminate driver distraction caused by using electronic devices while operating any type of motor vehicle. ATA's safety agenda explains that electronic communication devices hinder driver performance by taking the driver's eyes off the road. Drivers may become so absorbed in a text message that their ability to concentrate on driving is impaired.

Meanwhile, texting bans are having an impact, according to a report released on Friday by the Auto Club of Southern California. Prior to California's ban on texting while driving, researchers noted that 1.4% of drivers in Orange County had engaged in the practice. (I'm not sure what methodology was used.) Following the law taking effect, they noted a 70% decline, to 0.4%.

This indicates that banning texting while driving can potentially change driving behavior of motorists, reduce dangerous distracted driving, and improve safety, the Auto Club of Southern California concluded. The Automobile Association of America (AAA) is pushing for a ban in all 50 states.

Is there a happy medium whereby those who rely on mobile devices in the vehicle can safely continue using them?

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.