What’s Changed About Distracted Driving? We Hope, At Least, You

By Robert L. Sumwalt

We’ve all seen it happen. . . We’re driving toward our destination, eyes on the road, when we notice a car in the lane next to ours start to drift slowly toward us. We adjust our own vehicle, then gradually slow down to allow for the erratic driver’s apparent need for access to both lanes. Then, through the other car’s rear window, we find out why it was unable to maintain its own lane: its driver was chatting away or attempting to text, rather than focusing on the task of driving.

But how many of us have used such a close call to adjust our own behavior toward distractions in the car? Are we doing enough to spread the word about the danger distractions pose? And how can we do it more effectively?

To kick off Distracted Driving Awareness Month last year, I had the privilege of hosting a roundtable discussion of national leaders in distraction research, transportation industry executives, and safety advocates. It was an unprecedented exchange of diverse viewpoints, but a few key takeaways emerged:

  • Eyes, hands, and mind on the road! Despite different methodologies, there is basic scientific agreement that cognitive distraction can degrade driving performance. Everybody understands that looking away or fiddling with gadgets increases risk – the problem is getting people to understand that even hands-free devices add driving risk too.
  • It’s worse than we thought – about four times worse. When we look at studies of distraction among teen drivers, we’re finding out that the national statistics attempting to show the prevalence of distraction is actually underreporting it by a factor of four.
  • (Temporarily) exiling digital natives. We need to train our children to make safe decisions, and to learn self-control so that the underlying behavior itself is changed. Technology can solve many problems with distraction, but consistently safe behavior remains critical.
  • Can safety sell in the state house? Many state legislators admit that voting to ban the use of personal electronic devices in private vehicles is such a political hot potato that they won’t do it, even when they recognize the associated safety risk.

As National Distracted Driving Awareness Month comes to an end this week, we have to ask ourselves – has anything changed?

Incredibly, four states still permit texting and driving. Only 14 states and DC have laws prohibiting handheld cell phones while driving. The political will to pass effective laws banning distracting technologies from our vehicles is still lacking, evidenced by the fact that no state has yet taken the step to prohibit all PED use while driving.

And, remember that car with the distracted driver creeping into your lane? Because they know the law does not punish their distracted driving with a penalty, they might continue their dangerous behavior until they – or you – pay a much higher price.

Legislators may not have the resolve to end distracted driving, but you can chose to end distracted driving.  Make the personal choice: don’t be a distracted driver, and don’t tolerate distracted driving by your children or friends.

This blog also appears on the National Safety Council (NSC) website.  NSC has received permission from the NTSB to reproduce it on the website.

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