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The Distracted Driving Epidemic

It’s Not Just Cell Phones and Loud Passengers

By Lindsay Robison

Red taillights as far as the eye can see. You’ve got to be at the office for a meeting in fifteen minutes, but it took that long to travel the last five miles, and you still have another ten miles to go. It’s not quite the way you anticipated the start of your day.

Unexpected traffic jams and daily slowed traffic flow can be frustrating. We all have busy lives and limited hours in the day to accomplish the things we just have to do. But with so many other cars on the road, that extra commute time is inevitable at some point in our lives. We’ve been forced to wait out the line of cars and figure out how to get our duties done in even less time.

Gridlocked, we’ve got nothing better to do than to idle in the bumper-to-bumper traffic rocking out to whatever the deejay decides to play, right? Not anymore. With 262 million Americans owning cell phones today, it would probably be safe to say that those manning the driver’s seats of the vehicles all around you, and maybe even you, will be calling your boss to tell him or her you’ll be late, then possibly text messaging friends to tell them how frustrating it is to be sitting in morning traffic, and finally possibly posting to your Facebook page or Twitter account, “Sitting in traffic, morning is wasting away.”

Cell phones, PDAs, and smart phones can be a godsend. We’re always connected, always plugged in. We can use them in the case of an emergency. But cell phones can also be the reason for the emergency. Talking on the phone while driving has become such a problem that legislation regarding the issue has passed in almost every state. Even harsher legislation has been passed in many states regarding text messaging. And more states than not are cracking down harder on young drivers.

It can be convenient to always be connected, but it might be the root of the problem. “Basically there is a strong feeling of pressure to stay connected at all times,” says Bill Windsor, Nationwide Insurance’s safety officer. “About two-thirds of people we have surveyed said they felt the pressure to stay connected whether it is to business or to friends or to family; that they needed to be available 24/7, and that included while they were driving. The interesting thing about that is that older generations told us that it was more related to business, and when you got to the younger generations it was the societal pressure more than anything else.”

Not long ago, Windsor was riding with his teenage daughter, who knows she is not supposed to be using her phone in any way while driving, when her phone started to vibrate in the console between them. “I could see her look down,” he says. “It was killing her wondering ‘Who’s that?’ and ‘What do they want?’

“If teens get a text and they don’t answer within two or three minutes, the person on the other end thinks something is wrong or they’re mad at them,” he continues.

But talking and texting are not the only things distracting drivers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration didn’t name the summit it held last fall the Cell Phone and Texting While Driving Summit; rather it was the Distracted Driving Summit.

“It could be passengers. It could be a cup of hot coffee. It could be a burger from McDonalds. It could even be a dog,” says Rae Tyson, NHTSA spokesman. “Then it could be any number of electronic devices that might distract you from the driving task.”

Maybe it is the hetic nature of life that makes people think they must multitask while driving their vehicles from point A to point B. People running late to work may stop by the drive-thru and pick up breakfast on the way, paying more attention to the food in their hands than the other cars on the road. Women may put on their mascara and eyeliner, looking into the visor mirror and driving with one hand. Men may shave off the five o’clock shadow they didn’t have time to take care of before they left the house. But it’s not just adults who engage in those types of tasks.

Seventy-three percent of driving teens admit to sending text messages when they should be paying attention to the road, according to studies conducted by Students Against Destructive Decisions. “But certainly there are many other behaviors that are concerning to us,” says Stephen Wallace, national chairman and CEO of SADD. “The one that probably startled me the most, we heard this during focus groups during our research and then we looked at it in the quantitative research and found that 30 percent of teen drivers change clothes while they’re driving. That was the one that made my jaw drop. The speeding, the texting, the other kids in the car, the GPS, the radio [as distractions], none of those surprised me, but changing the clothes in the car while driving caught my attention.”

Anything that causes you to take your eyes off the road increases your likelihood of getting into an accident. One study shows that depending on the distraction, a driver is anywhere from one to eight times more likely to be in a crash when distracted. Most people probably don’t realize how long it takes or how far they travel in the time it takes to dial a phone number or type out a quick text message. If people drive 55 mph, they can travel the length of a football field in less than five seconds, according to a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study. Other studies show that most distractions cause people to take their eyes off the road for at least two seconds, and a little more than four seconds to send a text message. And when on a busy road, a lot can happen in that little amount of time.

Whatever the reason may be for the distraction, a 2001 study conducted by the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina found that drivers are busy. Researchers reported that 15 percent of drive time is spent chatting with other passengers, and drivers spend at least 14.5 percent of their total driving time doing some activity as well as driving down the road.

“Although some people like to think that they can do six or eight things at once, the fact of the matter is that when you’re engaged in something else, it causes your mind to shift elsewhere than the task at hand of safely getting yourself down the road,” says Tyson.

“I see people watching movies while they’re driving down the street. It’s insane,” Wallace says. “I was on the expressway in Boston the other day, and every driver around me was doing something other than just driving. I thought one of those people was going to run into me – the guy behind me, the woman next to me, the people in front of me, everybody was multitasking during perhaps some of the most challenging driving conditions on a crowded city highway at rush hour.”

However capable of multitasking while driving a lot of people think they are, many Americans believe driving while distracted is dangerous. A recent poll commissioned by Seattle-based PEMCO Insurance shows that 45 percent of Washingtonians believe texting or e-mailing causes the most problems on the road. Twenty-two percent say talking and driving is. The national numbers seem to say much of the same thing. SADD’s Wallace says that of the teens who admit to texting while driving and talking on the phone while driving, 97 percent and 89 percent of them, respectively, think it’s dangerous. But Americans continue to do it, and suffer because of it. Last year, almost 6,000 people died and roughly half a million were seriously injured in distraction-related accidents, according to the NHTSA.

The solution for many is to take the distraction out of the vehicle, and legislation is being enacted to come to that end. As of this past October, six states and Washington, D.C., had banned handheld cell phone use while driving; 21 states and the District of Columbia had banned all cell phone use by novice drivers; and 18 states and D.C. had prohibited text messaging while driving for all drivers. Car manufacturers are coming up with technologies that will make hands-free communication easier, and both car manufacturers and cell phone companies are advocating for handheld phone texting bans. But even with these advocacy efforts, companies are also looking to add comfort and convenience to the lives of drivers, which in the end can add to the distraction.

A 2007 Edmunds.com article says that auto makers are being pulled in two directions: safety and market share. They want to keep drivers and passengers safe, but they also want to sell vehicles, and potentially distracting “goodies” help sell cars. “They have converted their vehicles to rolling living rooms and offices…” the article says.

Power outlets in which to plug in computers, satellite radios with display screens continually rolling the names of the songs, GPS systems, and touch screens on the dash all make for cars with cool features, but make for more distraction.

“We need to provide reasonable accommodations for a wide variety of activities that people want to do in their cars,” Andrew Coetzee, vice president of product planning for Toyota Motor Sales, says in the article. “We have the responsibilities to meet the needs of customers. It’s up to the customers to use them at their discretion.”

Some distractions, though, cannot be taken away or used at the discretion of the driver. Children and passengers can’t always be left at home. It’s impossible to make sure you can change lanes without looking behind you, taking your eyes off the road in front of you. And you most definitely cannot stop people from thinking.

The mind seems to be a problem. A couple of years ago, the NHTSA conducted a research project at a facility in Ohio. The administration constructed an indoor replica of a road situation complete with intersections, traffic lights, and even shrubbery to make it seem as real as possible. While the participants navigated the course, the researchers introduced various secondary tasks, including dialing a telephone number on a handheld phone, copying down a grocery list, and changing CDs, to see which ones were the most distracting.

“One of the toughest in terms of impact on driver performance was what seemed to be a simple task,” says NHTSA’s Tyson. “The instructor told the driver to start with the number 842 and to subtract backward by seven. Just the act of having to concentrate on subtracting by seven was enough that it significantly affected driver performance. It didn’t involve an electronic device. It didn’t involve manipulating anything with your fingers. It didn’t involve listening to anything. It involved thinking.”

Which is why some don’t think hands-free cell phone use is the answer to the problem. Although the tasks of using hands and taking eyes off the road are eliminated, the cognitive distraction still exists.

Some fear the problem is going to only get worse as newer and more technology is released. In fact, some technology developed with the purpose of making people safer in cars can allow people to pay less attention to driving. Technologies that assist drivers with cruise control, blind spot detection, or lane drifting, while extremely handy as backup systems, can be distracting, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety sees them as cause of concern.

Anne McCartt, senior vice president of research for the IIHS, thinks the different warnings these systems emit could actually cause problems. “Let’s say you have several of these systems. How would a driver interpret them in a way that they can react appropriately or not be startled,” she says. “And in a near-crash situation where the driver would have to take in the information that they are being warned and then have to appropriately react? I don’t even know how you’d do it.”

Perhaps the most effective solution, whether it is for cell phones or the myriad other distractions, is a combination of education and awareness, tough enforcement of laws that have been passed, technology that can stop cell phone and texting use while driving, and perhaps a little incentive.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the Governors Highway Safety Administration believe it is awareness and a cultural shift that will make the difference. The AAA Foundation is trying to learn lessons from the anti-smoking campaign and how cultural beliefs about drunk driving were shifted. Foundation staff then wants to implement those lessons learned to make a cultural shift in distracted driving, according to the AAA Foundation’s communications director Fairley Mahlum.

“The ultimate goal is to bring common sense to people and to make sure they understand what they are doing is really unsafe,” says Barbara Harsha, GHSA’s executive director, “and that is not achievable with one quick strategy like passing a law. It comes down to changing the culture. It’s a whole list of things we need to do, and it’s going to take time.”

As far as incentives go, a few insurance companies have considered or begun offering discounts to customers who try to be proactive in avoiding distractions. Nationwide Insurance is willing to offer a premium discount to policyholders who buy and use any of the technologies that Nationwide believes will cut down on distracted driving, according to Windsor. Several companies are working on technologies that block cell phone signals while a car is in motion.

“As with anything in highway safety, there has to be a certain level of acceptance, a certain level of recognition that something is a problem, and a big enough problem for a particular driver that the driver will do what is needed to keep safe,” says McCartt. “Look at what happened with seat belts. It took a long time to get the American public to recognize that they needed to buckle up to be safe. We’re just trying to keep ahead of it [the distracted driving problem]. Two years ago I don’t even remember talking about texting. What will be next?”

Posted: Friday, March 26, 2010 11:37:37 PM. Modified: Thursday, March 10, 2011 7:45:29 PM.

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