Chin Up…and Avoid Distraction!

By Vice Chairman T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH

Vice Chairman Dinh-Zarr at the 3rd Annual Virginia Distracted Driving SummitLast week, I attended the 3rd Annual Virginia Distracted Driving Summit to share ideas, gather information, and learn about best practices related to the issue of distraction. It was an honor to be among these advocates and researchers, who are continually working on efforts to reduce the dangerous – and unhealthy – practice of distracted driving.

NTSB has been battling distraction for several years; it has been a contributing cause of accidents in all modes of transportation. The issue is on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements and has been for the past few years. This issue is important to me, the NTSB, and the millions of people who share our roads.

My training is in public health and prevention is the cornerstone of this field. Public health professionals believe almost everything – from diseases to distraction – can be prevented if we can just figure out the cause and disseminate the treatment, whether that treatment is a vaccine or a behavior modification.

To prevent distraction, the culture of safety in the United States and across the world must be changed. Most people don’t think of being distracted as unhealthy. They think of it as simply a part of life. But it is unhealthy.

It is becoming harder and harder to disconnect from technology, because we have the means to stay connected with what’s going on each and every second of the day. Since the advent of the automobile, we have had to deal with the issue of distraction. Drivers felt distracted by windshield wipers, by the radio, by their passengers, and by many other things. Distraction is a complex issue and a difficult topic to tackle because its study (and its prevention) encompasses many factors – the road, the vehicle, and the person. There are so many ways we can tackle this problem – work environment, laws and enforcement, behavior change, technology, safety culture, to name a few. It is also an issue that has affected many people, including myself.

In late 1996, in Houston, I was involved in a crash caused by a distracted driver. It was a morning I’ll never forget.

I was driving down Almeda Road in Houston, Texas, on my way to the Texas Medical Center to turn in my thesis for my Master’s degree in public health, when a distracted driver coming out of the dry cleaners attempted to cross the road and crashed into my vehicle and another vehicle, sending me and another woman to the emergency room.

Because of that crash, I had six months of physical therapy due to injuries to my neck, shoulder, and back. These areas still flare up today.

Why was the gentleman distracted that day? Because he was trying to adjust the radio. When I later learned that I was enduring hours of painful physical therapy every week because someone was adjusting his radio, I was mad. And there are many families today who are mad, but they have found a way to channel those emotions towards efforts to reduce distractions in transportation. At the Summit, I had the honor of meeting some of these families who have become strong advocates against distracted driving.

Looking back, I realize just how lucky I was that day in Houston – lucky because the crash was not as severe as it could have been and lucky because the first responders were there quickly.

I walk or ride my bicycle almost every day – taking turns with my husband to take our son to school or pick him up. Lately, I’ve been hearing the young people in my neighborhood say “chin up” to people who are walking on the sidewalk with their heads down absorbed in their electronic devices. My 7-year-old son loves that saying, and, when we are on our bikes waiting to cross a street, he has even tried to say it to people in their car at a stop who have their heads down.

Chin up – it is a reminder to people to lift their heads, disconnect from whatever the distraction might be, and pay attention to the world around them when sharing a sidewalk or the roads. Chin up – it is also a reminder to traffic safety researchers and advocates to keep up the important work of finding the best, evidence-based interventions and then implementing them widely to keep our communities safe.

Chin up and disconnect from those deadly distractions. Chin up to save lives and prevent injuries.

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