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Wednesday, December 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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BlackBerry tapping causes car-crunching chain reaction on I-5

Seattle Times staff reporter

A Mercer Island man fiddling with his BlackBerry was cruising down Interstate 5's express lanes Tuesday morning in his minivan, oblivious that traffic ahead had come to a dead stop.

What happened next "could have been horribly tragic," said Washington State Patrol spokesman Jeff Merrill.

The 53-year-old man's minivan smashed into a car, setting off a chain reaction that included three other cars and a Community Transit bus, which was carrying 28 passengers.

No one was seriously injured, but the accident near downtown Seattle underscores the dangers of driving while preoccupied with electronic gadgets, other passengers and even "driver grooming," according to a state study.

"Most of our collisions are caused by inattention," Merrill said.

The driver of the first car rear-ended by the minivan was a 36-year-old Lake Forest Park woman whose 5-month-old son was in a car seat in the back seat.

The woman and her son were in satisfactory condition and staying overnight for observation at Harborview Medical Center, according to a spokeswoman.

In the first six months of this year, the state has compiled statistics on 57,000 vehicle collisions.

Drunken driving, excessive speed and drugs are among the usual culprits that contribute to 93.5 percent of all collisions in Washington.

The state this year is also tracking a list of 12 additional driver distractions that account for the remaining 6.5 percent.

Operating a handheld communications device — such as a cellphone or BlackBerry — is No. 5 on the new list.

The top 4 are: distractions outside the vehicle; unknown driver distraction; miscellaneous distractions inside the vehicle; and interacting with "passengers, animals or objects in the vehicle."

Operating a hands-free telecommunications device is No. 10, and operating devices such a laptop is No. 11.

Last on the list, at No. 12, is "driver grooming."

The hazards of driving while using a cellphone have not escaped the attention of lawmakers.

A report published in the summer 2006 issue of the journal Human Factors concluded, " ... the impairments associated with using a cellphone while driving can be as profound as those associated with driving while drunk."

In the last two years, the Legislature has considered a bill banning drivers from talking on handheld cellphones.

Washington, D.C., and states including Connecticut, New Jersey and New York already have such laws.

Merrill said troopers commonly observe drivers obviously distracted by their cellphones.

"You see them carrying on a very heated discussion on the telephone. You know by looking at them, and at their body language, and at their gesturing, that to a huge extent their attention is focused on the conversation they're having, rather than driving a car," Merrill said. "This is a very dangerous pastime."

For Merrill, there isn't much difference between driver impairment from using a cellphone or a BlackBerry.

"What's the difference, whether you're looking down at a cellphone number or a display on a BlackBerry?" he said.

Although the accident Tuesday morning caused no serious injuries, it disrupted southbound express-lane traffic heading into downtown Seattle for at least an hour.

The driver, who told troopers he'd been using his BlackBerry, was cited for following too closely, a $153 fine. His name was unavailable Tuesday.

Merrill said he understands the frustration of drivers stuck on the freeway.

"I'm sure it becomes quite frustrating for the public to know they're sitting there in a traffic jam caused by a guy using text messaging," he said.

"It's like running out of gas on one of the floating bridges. There is no excuse for that."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237; elacitis@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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