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Texting while driving now a worse public hazard than drunk drivers

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Memo to mobile device users who text-and-drive: Just stop it. If you don’t, odds are not unlikely that you’ll eventually hurt or kill others or yourself with your narcissistic stupidity. In exceedingly unlikely and rare instances that a text missive or reply from you really is so earth-shatteringly important that it can’t wait, then it’s important enough for you to pull over is a safe parking spot and devote it your full attention. Otherwise, the world will get along just fine without your input until you arrive at your destination or your next fueling/bathroom stop.

Texting and other cellphone-enabled distractions emerged out of nowhere a decade ago to become today’s number-one public health hazard—their toll now statistically surpassing that of drunk driving. There have even been at least three catastrophic train wrecks over the past few years—in Boston, Los Angeles, and in recently Spain—all attributed to operator texting distraction.

According to the National Safety Council, more than 100,000 automobile crashes a year involve texting while driving, and according to an AT&T Wireless survey, 75% of teens say texting while driving is “common” among their friends.

Canada’s CTV News reported last week that 47 of the 177 deaths on the province of Ontario’s highways so far in 2013 (before the Labor Day weekend) involved distracted drivers, compared to 32 killed in alcohol impaired driving-related incidents. CTV also cited Royal Canadian Mounted Police metrics indicating that distracted driving was a contributing factor in 104 collision fatalities in British Columbia in 2010, and international research showing that some 20-30% of all vehicle collisions now involve driver distraction.

The situation is just as serious in the U.S. where the latest State Farm/Harris Interactive survey conducted among 14-18 year olds reveals that teen drivers are aware of road dangers but continue in some risky behaviours anyway. The survey found that 49% of licensed drivers admit to texting while behind the wheel, and 2 out of 5 believe they have no control over whether they will get into a car crash despite research showing that 75% of crashes involving teens are caused by driver error.

The Text Kills project is a donation-supported outreach program that regularly partners with law enforcement, fire/safety authorities, schools, other non-profits, community outreach programs, and corporate safety officers in an effort to educate and increase public awareness concerning the dangers of cell phone use while driving.

Text Kills

Image via TextKills.

Text Kills has also been conducting an Indiegogo campaign (now concluded) to raise funds that will be used to produce a one-of-a-kind, educational documentary on texting while driving—working title: “Smartphones of Mass Destruction”—that will focus four main aspects of the relatively new, and very dangerous byproduct, of using mobile technology while driving (TWD). The documentary will cover the stories, science, psychology, technology, and laws surrounding the practice, which the organization says has become the nation’s number one killer of teens, with 3,331 people dying in incidents caused by TWD in 2011.

TextKills

Image Courtesy TextKills

Would you get in a car driven by someone you knew was impaired by alcohol? Passengers are urged to demand either cease and desist or to be let out of the car shroud they find themselves in a moving vehicle with a texting driver. CTV cites Ontario Provincial Police Highway Safety Division commander Chief Superintendent Don Bell observing that, “Most people would not get into a vehicle with an impaired driver, and they are at as much risk in the presence of a distracted driver as an impaired driver.” Actually, even greater risk, based on above-noted metrics. Only 13% of Canadian licensed drivers are between the ages of 16 and 24, but according to the Traffic Injury Research Foundation, they account for nearly 25% of the motor vehicle related deaths and injuries. Canadian teenagers face a higher risk of death per mile/kilometre driven than all other age groups—about three times the rate for 35 to 44 year old licensed drivers—and the most common way for young Canadians to be injured or killed is when they are a driver or a passenger in a vehicle.

It Can Wait, originally launched by AT&T, is a campaign created to end texting and driving, and has evolved into a movement advocating that no message is so urgent that it is worth diverting attention from the road and risking lives in the process.

It Can Wait currently is supported by the four largest U.S. wireless carriers—AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile, US, Inc.—as well as more than 200 other organizations and thousands of concerned individuals. The movement has inspired more than 2 million pledges through ItCanWait.com, on Facebook, through text-to-pledge and tweet-to-pledge, and at events, including the texting-while-driving simulator tour, retail presence in tens of thousands of stores, and outreach to millions of consumers with a special focus throughout the summer months between Memorial Day and Labor Day, which are known as the 100 deadliest days on the roads for teen drivers. The 2013 campaign drive will culminate on Sept. 19, when efforts turn towards encouraging everyone to get out in their community and advocate involvement on behalf of the movement.

As for gabbing on cellphones while driving, handheld device use behind the wheel is now illegal in most Canadian provinces and U.S. states, but chattering on hands-free devices is still widely allowed. No Canadian jurisdiction bans all drivers from using hands-free cell phones while driving. That’s a mistake. Don’t be fooled. Research indicates the risk of dangerous distraction is little, if any lower, during hands-free cellphone conversations. The Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) is convinced that using a hands-free cell phone while driving is no safer than driving while conversing on a handheld cell phone, and is urging Canada’s provincial governments to expand their bans.

An Ontario Medical Association meta-analysis of studies from around the world indicates cellphone use affects drivers’ cognitive function, visual concentration, information processing efficiency and reaction time, reduces driver field of view, results in less mirror-checking, decreases distance maintained between vehicles and more frequent panic braking. This puts behind-the-wheel cellphone users and anyone in their path at significantly greater risk, regardless of whether they’re on hands-free or hand-held phones. The studies also notie cellphone use while driving poses nearly the same risks as driving at the legal alcohol limit.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has determined that using cellphones—even hands-free units—increases crash risk fourfold. This is greater than low-level alcohol impairment. Texting (presumably GPS programming as well)—which distracts visually, physically and cognitively—increases risk sixfold. A 2009 study by the Harvard Center of Risk Analysis calculated cellphone use contributing to 6% of all U.S. automobile crashes (636,000, resulting in 12,000 serious injuries and 2,600 deaths annually, as well as $43 billion damage costs).

Findings of a new study released in June by the American Automobile Association (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety (claimed to be the most comprehensive ever to examine mental distraction of drivers) also show that dangerous mental distractions exist even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. Researchers found that as mental workload and distractions increase, reaction time slows, brain function is compromised, drivers scan the road less and miss visual cues, potentially resulting in their not seeing items right in front of them, including stop signs, other vehicles, and pedestrians.

AAA Distracted Driving

Image via American Automobile Association

University of Utah studies in 2005 and 2006 found drivers talking on cell phones had 18% slower braking response times than motorists focused on driving, concluding that cellphone use while driving causes impairment equal to driving with 0.08 percent blood-alcohol levels—the legal limit in most states and Canadian provinces. A 2006 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration / Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study found 80% of crashes directly linked to driver inattention, cellphone use topping the distractions list.

The U.S. National Safety Council advocates banning all automobile operator cellphone use, the prudent course being to turn the ringer off and stash the phone somewhere out of reach before turning the key. The CAA says laws banning handheld phones while allowing hands-free use provide no safety benefit, possibly even increasing accident rates by encouraging drivers to chatter more and longer under false belief they’re safe. Doctors in Nova Scotia argue that allowing hands-free units merely places the phone out of sight while drivers continue to talk, distracted from due diligence, while crash risk remains 4x greater. Hands-free phones don’t eliminate cognitive distraction of focus on conversations engaged in, and donning headsets or changing phone settings while driving divert attention from the road, increasing crash risk.

And vehicle manufacturers, responding to consumer demand, are making things exponentially worse, with most new vehicles equipped with what amounts to an on-screen video games and communications console in the middle of the dashboard, often along with much-ballyhooed hands-free cellphone support and voice control gadgetry. AAA predicts a five-fold increase in new vehicle infotainment systems by 2018, and is calling for regulatory action and restraint. “There is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies,” commented AAA President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet in a release. “It’s time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars, particularly with the common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free.”

AAA researchers found listening to the radio ranked as a category “1″ level of distraction with minimal risk, while talking on cellphones, either handheld or hands-free, rated a “2″ or a moderate risk. However, listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated email features increased mental workload and distraction levels of drivers to a “3″ rating and extensive risk. “These findings reinforce previous research that hands-free is not risk-free,” observes AAA Foundation President and CEO Peter Kissinger. “Increased mental workload and cognitive distractions can lead to a type of tunnel vision or inattention blindness where motorists don’t see potential hazards right in front of them.”

The AAA is urging the automotive and electronics industries to limit use of voice-activated technology to core driving-related activities such as climate control, windshield wipers and cruise control, disable certain voice-to-text functions such as using social media or interacting with email and text messages, making them inoperable while the vehicle is in motion, and to help educate vehicle and mobile device users about responsible use and safety risks of in-vehicle technologies.

Given preponderance of scientific proof that cellphone gabbing behind the wheel is hazardous, there’s simply no defensible case for tolerating the practice. Bans hard to enforce? Well, all sorts of laws are difficult to enforce. We still keep them in place.

In the meantime, individual users need to exercise better judgment on their own.

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2 Comments

  1. I guess texting and driving has reached its peak. I’ve see so many people in their car peeking at their cellphone while driving- it’s kind of terrifying for those who don’t.

    Louis Hardin
  2. Text and Drive recently became the #1 killer of teens in the US – more lethal than drunk driving. I think its starting to become clear that legislation has value in raising public awareness in forums like this one but it will be difficult to solely legislate our way out of this issue. I also read that over 3/4 of teens text daily – many text more than 4000 times a month. New college students no longer have email addresses! They use texting and Facebook – even with their professors. Tweens (ages 9 -12) send texts to each other from their bikes. Technology needs to be part of the solution and not dismissed as the villain.

    I decided to do something about distracted driving after my three year old daughter was nearly run down right in front of me by a texting driver. Instead of a shackle that locks down phones and alienates the user, I built a texting asset called OTTER that is a simple and intuitive GPS based, texting auto reply app for smartphones. While driving, OTTER silences those distracting call ringtones and chimes unless a bluetooth is enabled. The texting auto reply allows anyone to schedule a ‘texting blackout period’ in any situation like a meeting or a lecture without feeling disconnected. This software is a social messaging tool for the end user that also empowers this same individual to be a sustainably safer driver.

    Erik Wood, owner
    OTTER apps (Since 2010. Free)
    do one thing well… be great.

    Erik Wood