Distracted Driving (noun): the practice of driving a motor vehicle while engaged in another activity.
Common distractions include using a smartphone, eating, drinking, talking to passengers, reading maps, using a GPS, watching a video, adjusting the music, and grooming (Let’s be honest — the world can be separated into two groups: those who have put on make-up or shaved while driving, and those who have looked over, witnessed, and judged said people). However, because texting requires visual, manual AND cognitive attention, it is the most cringe-worthy distraction in this list by far. According to a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, a person’s eyes are off the road an average of five seconds while texting. At 55 miles per hour, that’s like driving the length of a football field blindfolded. Someone should tell the DMV to start putting that analogy on driver’s license tests.
Unfortunately, approximately 660,000 drivers are using phones or other electronic devices at any given daytime moment in the U.S., according to a recent survey conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That is a number that has held steady since 2010, despite states’ efforts to crack down on the issue. Lawmakers have done a decent job getting the word out about new laws, but according to the National Safety Council (NSC), the laws send mixed messages. Car makers are putting hands-free technology in vehicles, and many state laws focus only on banning handheld phone use. But the NSC warns that it’s not just the fact that you’re using your hands that makes it dangerous to use a cell phone while driving — it’s the conversation itself. Your mind is simply not on the road or your surroundings.
The NSC has even devoted the entire month of April to spreading the word in the hopes of increasing awareness. Think you already know enough about the risks? It would appear that while most people are aware that driving while distracted is dangerous, there seems to be a general attitude of “it’s dangerous for you, not for me.” That idea is consistent with the results of a study performed by senior research scientist with Texas A&M University Transportation Institute, Katie Womack. “Our data shows that people tend to underestimate their own risk,” she commented. “They might see it as a risk that is applicable to others.” Three-fourths of people surveyed said they’ve talked on a cell phone while driving in the past month. Ninety-six percent of those same drivers think other drivers do the same thing. Forty-four percent said they text while driving, yet proclaim that 89 percent of other drivers also text while driving. An unbelievable one-third of the people surveyed said that they’re good enough drivers to safely handle distractions.
Through April and beyond, it’s important to understand that texting teens are not the only significant culprits, even though their immaturity and inexperience are convenient scapegoats. It’s easy to point the finger at someone else, particularly at youths and their gadgets, but according to a Pennsylvania-based insurance company which took an extensive look at data logged in the National Fatality Analysis Reporting System, 62 percent of distracted driving crashes were caused by people who were “lost in thought.” Now, think for a minute. Who are the people most likely to drive while “lost in thought?” Not the teenagers, but their parents. The longer a person has been driving, the more complacent they are likely to become to the basic risks of getting behind the wheel. Adults are thinking about a conversation they had (or want to have) with their boss or spouse, an issue with the kids, finances, to-do lists, etc. The brain is funny like that. How many times have you gotten to work and not been able to remember the commute?
Pedestrians are not helping the situation. In fact, they are proving themselves to be almost equally blameworthy for not heeding basic safety advice. Pedestrian fatalities are on the rise, and we may have “pedtextrians” to thank for that. The members of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) have seen an increase in distracted walking-related visits in recent years. In fact, research by AAOS revealed that nearly four out of 10 Americans say they have personally witnessed a distracted walking incident, and just over a quarter say they have been in an incident themselves. Among those involved in an incident, women aged 55 and over are the most likely to suffer serious injuries. Millennials aged 18 to 34 are the least likely to be injured, yet they are the most likely to actually be distracted while walking. It’s reasonable to suggest that general health and reaction time contribute to that statistic.
Distracted walkers may fail to use crosswalks, ignore traffic lights, cross without looking both ways, and generally take longer to cross the street than pedestrians who are paying attention to where they are and where they’re going. Makes you wonder how many children are learning to look both ways before crossing the street, and how many children are learning to look one way– down at their phones.
Kate Carr, president and CEO of the nonprofit organization, Safe Kids Worldwide, feels people take things like crosswalks for granted. “People think that they’re safe in a crosswalk. They think ‘it’s not going to happen to me.’ And in fact, we’re seeing more pedestrian injuries and fatalities.” According to Safe Kids, pedestrian injury rates have increased by 25 percent over the past five years among teens ages 16 to 19. Safe Kids even camped out in intersections at 68 schools in 17 states to try to measure the risk where kids walk to and from schools. They observed more than 34,000 kids crossing the street and found that about one in five high schoolers and one in eight middle schoolers were distracted with electronics while crossing.
As the evidence continues to mount that electronic devices make us inattentive pedestrians, it’s also pretty dangerous to cross the street on blind trust that those behind the wheel aren’t looking down at their own phones. While technology is tempting, its availability doesn’t mean we have to use it. Safety is more important than taking that selfie, updating that status, responding to that text, etc.