Disconnect from Deadly Distractions

The traveling public clearly recognizes the dangers posed by distracted driving. A 2013 survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that 94 percent of the drivers surveyed believed texting while driving should be outlawed, and 74 percent even supported a ban on hand-held cellphone use while driving. Despite this recognition of the risk, though, 49% of the adults surveyed by AT&T said they continued to occasionally text behind the wheel. And a 2013 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that more than two out of every three drivers admitted to talking on a cell phone while driving in the past month.

By Robert Sumwalt

NTSB Most Wanted List 2015 - Disconnect from Deadly DistractionsNew technologies are connecting us as never before – to information, to entertainment, and to each other. There’s no question that personal electronic devices (PEDs) have integrated themselves into nearly every facet of our society, and very often, the results are positive. When those technologies compete for our attention and focus while we operate of our vehicles, however, the results can be deadly.

Since 2003, the NTSB has identified distraction from PED use as a factor in 11 major accident investigations – accidents that took the lives of 50 people, and injured nearly 260 more.  On August 5, 2010, in Gray Summit, Missouri, a 19-year-old driver of a GMC Sierra pickup truck struck the back of a Volvo truck-tractor on Interstate 44 because he was engaged in a text message conversation while driving. This accident set off a chain reaction collision also involving two high school buses. Tragically, by the end of the sequence, the 19-year-old pickup driver had lost his life, and a 15-year-old student on one of the school buses had died, as well. Deadly accidents involving PED use, like Gray Summit, have become all too common, and this is the reason the NTSB has placed “Disconnect from deadly distraction” on our Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements for 2015.

The traveling public clearly recognizes the dangers posed by distracted driving. A 2013 survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that 94 percent of the drivers surveyed believed texting while driving should be outlawed, and 74 percent even supported a ban on hand-held cellphone use while driving. Despite this recognition of the risk, though, 49% of the adults surveyed by AT&T said they continued to occasionally text behind the wheel. And a 2013 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that more than two out of every three drivers admitted to talking on a cell phone while driving in the past month.

Why the tremendous gap between our behavior and the risk we know is there? I think the answer is two-fold. First, many of us delude ourselves into believing that we’re the exception: “I’m the most careful driver I know; making a few calls while I drive is no big deal.” But it  is a big deal, because, despite what we may believe, research shows that the human brain really isn’t good at multi-tasking.  While concentrating on one task, the other task gets dropped, if even for a second or two. That seemingly simple phone conversation or text message creates a cognitive distraction. The result is inattention blindness, meaning we don’t really see what’s in front of us, even if we’re keeping our eyes on the road.

Second, we’ve fallen prey to the myth that although texting or handheld phone calls behind the wheel are unacceptable, hands-free calls are somehow safer. Despite study after study showing no safety benefit from hands-free technology, laws and company policies that only prohibit handheld usage are sending the wrong safety message, by implying that one is safer than the other. While 44 states and the District of Columbia have banned texting while driving, and 14 states and DC prohibit handheld phone calls while driving, not one state has implemented a complete ban on PED use by all drivers. As a result of this wrong messaging, drivers are misled and assume a false sense of security. Meanwhile, lives continue to be lost.

Rather than waiting on our legislatures and company policies to catch up to the science of cognitive distraction, each one of us can take immediate action within our own vehicles. Give yourself permission to disconnect from deadly distractions. Once you make the commitment to leave phone calls and text messages behind every time you slide behind the wheel, you’ll rediscover the true freedom of the open road. And more importantly, you’ll create a safer environment for yourself, your passengers, and the drivers around you.

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