Eliminate Distracted Driving

By Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg

April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and we launched our 2021–2022 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements on April 6. It seemed only natural that we begin our Most Wanted List blog series with the item, “Eliminate Distracted Driving.”

Crashes involving distracted drivers killed 3,142 people in 2019—up nearly 10 percent from the year before. A staggering 400,000 people were injured, some seriously and permanently. These numbers are certainly significantly under-reported, given police don’t always examine phone records after a crash and, although the problem of distraction is not new, the potential for distracted driving has increased exponentially with the introduction of personal electronic devices (PEDs). With an estimated 294 million smartphone users in the United States, our phones and other PEDs are a constant temptation for nearly all drivers. Our PEDs continually demand our attention, and our brains reward us for responding to their demands.

Although awareness is the first step in avoiding your own distracted-driving crash, we don’t believe awareness alone is enough to eliminate the problem. In many respects, driving distracted is the same as driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol—each is a behavioral choice that can result in death and life-altering injuries, not only to the perpetrators, but to many innocent people, as well. Solving the problem will require not only raising awareness and educating the public, but also enacting laws and implementing high-visibility enforcement.

We have investigated numerous distracted-driving crashes where PED use and distraction, in general, had tragic consequences. For example, on August 5, 2010, in Gray Summit, Missouri, a truck-tractor was traveling slowly or had stopped behind traffic on Interstate 44. A pickup truck merged from the left to the right lane and struck the rear of the tractor, initiating the first in a series of three collisions. The pickup truck driver was texting and driving.

Two school buses approached the collision site: a lead bus carrying 23 passengers and a following bus with 31 passengers. The driver of the lead bus became excessively focused on a motorcoach that had pulled over onto the shoulder, and the lead bus struck the rear of the pickup truck, pushing it forward and overturning it onto the back of the tractor. Moments later, the second school bus struck the right rear of the lead bus.

Gray Summit crash scene, showing Volvo tractor and lead school bus. GMC
pickup is located between the two vehicles. The
following school bus is located at right rear of photo. (Courtesy of Boles Fire Protection District)

As a result of this crash, the driver of the pickup and one passenger seated in the rear of the lead school bus were killed. A total of 35 passengers from both buses, the two bus drivers, and the driver of the tractor sustained injuries ranging from minor to serious.

Education is critical to prevent distracted driving, particularly because there are still many myths out there about it. For example, drivers—and legislators—must understand that hands-free is notrisk free. People who would not dream of texting and driving or talking on a handheld phone while driving still take their chances when it comes to hands-free conversations. This purely mental aspect of distraction is called “cognitive distraction.” Additionally, many drivers believe they are good “multitaskers” and exempt from the dangers of distracted driving. The truth is humans can only focus on one task at a time. You can drive or you can use a PED, but you can’t do both safely. Look at this way: your brain is only a single-core processor, and there are no upgrades available.

There’s a big disconnect between the facts and many drivers’ actions. Drivers need to disconnect from devices while driving, except when using them for navigation. All phones have a do-not-disturb feature that can be enabled while you drive—use it!

It can take some drivers a long time to change their minds about risky driving behavior, despite mountains of evidence that a driving behavior is unsafe. In fact, some never do. And what about when drivers do change their behavior and choose not to drive distracted? All other drivers must make the same choice for the issue to totally disappear, because, unfortunately, even the most conscientious driver has limited ability to respond to the risks careless drivers expose them to. Passengers, and even people outside a vehicle, are relatively powerless against “the other guy.”

That’s why, in addition to awareness and education, we also need the right laws and enforcement to make real progress, just like we’ve done to address other risky driving behaviors in the past.

That’s why, in addition to education, we need legislation to combat this problem. Our recommendations, if acted upon, can further protect all road users—whether inside a vehicle or out—against distracted drivers by building attentive driving into the law. Banning texting while driving is a start. Texting is manually, visually, and cognitively distracting. We also support bans on handheld phone use while driving. Although we strive for bans on all nonemergency PED use that don’t support the driving task, and, as mentioned, even though hands-free isn’t risk-free, banning handheld phone use is a step in the right direction. We also believe that distracted driving should be the target of high-visibility enforcement, like impaired driving and seat belt use are.

There are those who believe it’s their right to use their phones whenever, however. But consider the risk-reward tradeoff—death, permanent injury to you or someone else, massive legal struggles, and for what? To tell someone what you had for lunch? To discuss a business deal? To text your spouse a reminder to pick up the dry cleaning? Think about it. Maybe you think you’re immune to the dangers of distracted driving. Maybe you think this message is geared toward all the other drivers on the road. Maybe you think the science doesn’t apply to you. Tens of thousands of similarly self-assured distracted drivers have thought the same and gotten it horribly—and irrevocably—wrong!

“Eliminate Distracted Driving” is on our 2021–2022 Most Wanted List because insisting on attentive driving will reduce injuries and save lives, pure and simple. Make the choice to drive attentively and encourage others to do the same. If that doesn’t feel like enough, consider supporting one of the many distracted driving advocacy groups that are working to eliminate this problem. When driving, no distraction is worth the risk.

NTSB Investigations involving Distracted Drivers

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