Distracted Driving Awareness Month continues all month long and so too does our discussion of getting us all to be more aware of what we are doing when we are behind the wheel. The last column I discussed how this epidemic is killing more than 40,000 people annually. I delved into the latest research and statistics in order to define the problem.
For this column I want to turn my attention to what we can do about this problem. In order to that, let’s start with a simple question that’s not so simple to answer: How do we “fix” distracted driving? Unfortunately, there is no simple solution. The good news in the bad news about driver distraction is that we all have to believe we can work together to find a solution to end of all this sadness.
It’s imperative that we look at what we as a society have accomplished in terms of getting people to buckle up when they get into a car. Most of us remember a day when buckling up was not automatic for most people, even though it seems like a no-brainer today.
Similarly, we’ve made tremendous strides in reducing drunk driving. The dangers of drunk driving used to be poorly understood by average folks like you and me who overestimated our abilities after having a couple of drinks.
Increasingly strict laws and consequences for driving drunk, alongside years of aggressive public education campaigns has turned drunk driving into a socially stigmatized decision. The problem is still there, of course, but as a society, there has been a huge shift in how we view drunk driving. It’s pretty universally unacceptable. This is exactly the same shift we need in how society thinks about distracted driving.
At the moment, many people overestimate their ability to manipulate a smartphone or interact with an in-vehicle infotainment system while driving. I hate to break it to any of these folks, but they’re not superheroes gifted with superhero reflexes. They’re human. Human brains are studied extensively and relatively well understood.
When we’re multitasking, our brains compensate by dividing their attention between two or more objectives. In other words, if your brain’s two-fold objective is to 1) drive, and 2) eat a jelly donut, guess what?
That jelly donut is adding to your cognitive load, and to some degree, you’re distracted.
Studies have shown time and time again that having a conversation while driving, whether it’s hands-free or not, is distracting; it delays a driver’s reaction time significantly.
So how do we start to change our own mindsets and others’ mindsets? How do we get people like you and me, who are confident in their abilities as drivers and as tech users, to admit that we’re not superheroes, and that we need to be more responsible?
First on the agenda is what we’re doing right now—exposing the problem and talking about potential solutions. Education is going to continue to be one of our most important weapons in the fight against distracted driving. Earlier this month, you may recall in this column I addressed several unique distracted-driving campaigns that are aimed to both reprimand and educate the public about the dangers of distracted driving.
One of them included police officers pulling distracted drivers over in a hearse. This attention-grabbing strategy was designed to shock people into giving their actions some more thought. Campaigns like the NSC (National Safety Council’s) Distracted Driving Awareness Month also goes a long way, as do private companies’ campaigns to get the word out.
As just one of many examples of the latter is AT&T’s “It Can Wait” Campaign. It has been very effective is getting people to take notice. But education alone is not going to be sufficient, and it can’t be stressed enough. Laws need to be stricter, and they need to be enforced. Penalties should probably be tougher. And more businesses need to get involved in the movement.
Last week, I shared some data from the NSC’s 2017 driver safety public opinion poll. There are still a couple of stats for this week that are worth noting that have to do with how respondents say they would react to stricter distracted driving laws. About 80% of respondents suggest they would support a state law that prohibited adult drivers from using handheld phones in any way while driving. And that includes making phone calls. Interestingly, 65% say they would support a state law that prohibited adult drivers from using a phone in any way while driving, including hands-free.
Many states do have laws that limit the use of devices while driving, but the laws vary, as do the consequences of breaking these laws. I think more states need to step up their game.
What’s more, as I have addressed in this column and so many times on my podcast, The Peggy Smedley Show, http://www.peggysmedleyshow.com/, that texting and driving is an increasing problem among motorists both young and old. It’s become an addiction. It’s both funny and a little scary to see how many people admit they are addicted to their phones and they can’t miss a call or text even when driving.
Perhaps there is some good news to report finally. As of late, the NSC is starting to notice shift occurring with some drivers. Motorists are actually beginning to ask for apps and devices that prevent them from phone communication while driving. In fact, NSC’s Deb Trombley says some drivers actually want their phone to automatically go into an airplane mode, or driver mode when they are on the road.
With so many people admitting they are addicted to their phones, they’re coming to the natural conclusion that their smartphones and car systems themselves should perhaps assist in reducing their temptation while behind the wheel.
Perhaps if more people would ask with a tone of indignation or exasperation, more drivers would be forced to stop the chatter while they are driving. There is no question there needs to be more technology to reduce distraction if motorists can’t resist the temptation to pick up their phone the moment it dings.
And for those who still don’t want to turn to technology, perhaps strict penalties and law enforcement might be required. One of the biggest pieces of news in distracted driving lately comes from the United Kingdom, which recently enacted a law making it illegal to use a phone (in a handheld fashion) while driving.
This includes when drivers are stopped at traffic lights or sitting idly in traffic. Penalties for breaking this law in the U.K. are pretty steep. Drivers caught in the wrong receive a minimum 200-pound fine and six penalty points on their licenses.
Extreme cases can result in much higher fines and being banned from driving altogether.
For U.K. drivers who have only had a license for two years or less, being caught driving distracted means losing their license.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that motorists realize the importance of curbing distracted driving because it costs human lives. But for those business-minded folks out there, let’s be clear that this epidemic also affects the economy. According to the NSC, the estimated cost of motor-vehicle deaths, injuries, and property damage in 2016 was $432.5 billion. These costs include wage and productivity losses, medical expenses, administrative expenses, employer costs, and property damage.
Distracted driving is just one of several avoidable causes of motor vehicle deaths and injuries in the United States and I think we all can agree that in addition to the tragic loss of human life, the cost of distracted driving is severe.
I urge you to consider what you as an individual and/or you as part of a corporation can do to help solve this problem. If it’s implementing a companywide no-distracted-driving policy, that’s even better. Maybe you can start by asking the question what do jelly donuts, driver distraction, and addiction all have something in common? Please, do something.
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