By Nicholas Worrell
Every day teens get behind the wheel for the first time. And seemingly every day, new portable electronic devices come on the market, adding to the possibility of driver distraction.
I emphasized that motor vehicle accidents are the number-one killer of youth ages 15-19. In the last decade, nationwide, we have lost more than 50,000 teenagers in motor vehicle crashes. That’s the 15-19 year-old population of Tallahassee, Florida – plus three additional similar cities.
Substance-impaired, fatigued, and distracted driving all contribute to this state of affairs. In the past decade, portable electronic devices have proliferated, presenting new ways to take the driver’s attention off the road. I told these young drivers that one step toward safer roads must be to Disconnect from Deadly Distractions.
Not all distractions are new: Rambunctious passengers, eating fast food behind the wheel, and gawking at extraneous sights outside the vehicle can distract drivers as well. But new hand-held, hands-free, and in-vehicle electronics have exploded in popularity, posing new hazards for all drivers, particularly young drivers.
I told the audience that while they are connected to the world like no generation before, this ubiquitous connectivity – when it is not related to the driving task – can take lives. But I also stressed that outside of the vehicle, this same connectivity may give new safety advocates new ways to spread the word about safer driving. They can instantly share potentially life-saving knowledge with vast informal networks of like-minded teens.
One such piece of information I shared is that drivers can be cognitively distracted even when their eyes are on the road and their hands are on the wheel. Hands-free is not risk free; even hands-free cell phone calls introduce cognitive distraction. I shared some examples and some other information with the audience, and then encouraged them to share the information.
Today’s adults remember a time before smart-phones. It falls on us to model responsible behavior to our kids, by disconnecting from deadly distractions while driving. It is our job to teach the next generation of drivers that the only thing they should connect to while driving is the driving task.
By the same token, the next generation shares in the challenge of making alert driving a cultural norm. Every driver should be well-rested, unimpaired by drugs or alcohol, and focused on the driving task.
Such a cultural change will take a protracted, concerted effort. It will take our youth speaking up when they see a peer driving unsafely in any way, and it will take adults modeling safe driving behavior.
The road to zero highway deaths is a long one, perhaps generations-long. Education, laws, and high-visibility enforcement all have their place in “reaching zero.” But with teens like the ones I met in Florida on-board, I believe it can be done.