We’ve all seen them, and maybe we are them—the drivers pressing cell phones to their ears as they zip past us on the freeways, or on city streets, or wheel around parking lots looking for empty parking spaces. Some drivers even hold the steering wheel with a couple of fingers and their palms while tapping out text messages.
Scenes like this are warnings to me. And not only because of these drivers’ apparent insensitivity to the safety of others but also due to the risks to themselves and, in some cases, to their passengers. While at the controls of 3,000-pound vehicles they seem encased in cocoons of denial, and act as if they believe—contrary to logic and scientific evidence—that accidents cannot happen to them.
Local broadcaster Jim Williams knows about lethal results when cell phones mix with driving: He lost an uncle in just such an accident four years ago. As a result, he said, whenever he sees this behavior he wants to use a baseball bat on the phone.
Researchers report that among the psycho-physiological effects of talking on a cell while driving are reduced attention to road conditions and fellow drivers; slower reaction time (about equivalent to having .08 percent of blood alcohol, according to some studies); and unnoticed visual information, like cars changing lanes in front of you. In comparison to others, drivers on cell phones tend to run more red lights and break more traffic laws.
These vehicles should carry signs that boldly warn “Distracted Driver on Board.” Perhaps a sensor that detects a wireless signal from the driver’s seat of a moving vehicle could trigger it.
Fanciful as this suggestion may be, such a sign could not only warn other drivers of danger, it would also alert law officers to the scofflaw. California is one of 34 states to make talking or texting with a hand-held device illegal while driving a vehicle.
On the books since mid 2008, the cell and text ban was underscored during a statewide enforcement campaign last April. Called “Not Worth the Risk,” this month-long effort by local and state law officers resulted in more than 52,600 citations issued.
Over the past 36 months the law produced nearly 5,000 citations from southern Santa Barbara County alone, according to Deputy Sheriff Kevin Huddle. The Goleta Traffic Division’s four officers, whom he supervised, generated about two-thirds of this total.
“With 13 years in law enforcement, it’s amazing to me to see the level of noncompliance with the cell phone law,” said Huddle. Recently he was called to a four-vehicle crash on Hollister Avenue that sent people to the hospital and totaled three cars. The cause? A pickup driver’s cell received a text message and he glanced down at the wrong moment.
Clearly, my fantasy technical fix would not solve all the problems posed by distracted driving. What about the people who eat or drink while driving alone? Or shave or apply makeup while behind the wheel, or read? Others may try to discipline boisterous offspring; and still others just love to talk to passengers. But cell phone use is still the main cause of distracted driving.
Some psychologists have speculated that the longer reaction times and impaired attention that mark the driver on a cell phone could also harm important communications with romantic partners and family members. In this sense, driving while talking on a cell can be hazardous to key relationships.
As cell phone ownership has risen—industry sources report Americans owned nearly 300 million of the devices as of June 2010—text messaging has virtually exploded. Users sent 1.8 trillion text-only messages last year, a third more than the previous year.
It is unclear how many of those messages were from moving vehicles, but a nationally representative poll of 2,000 drivers in 2010 found that 24 percent said they texted or emailed while driving. The same AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety survey added that two-thirds also admitted to driving and talking on their cells.
It is only getting harder to get drivers to think about and regulate their use of an increasing range of distracting wireless devices, many of which are for entertainment. New automobiles have dash panels that look like they belong on the USS Enterprise and sport utility vehicle (SUV) interiors come festooned with video screens.
The convergence of distracted driving carnage and spreading wireless infotainment has come to a point where the federal government feels compelled to push back. Recently National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief David Strickland told a Detroit conference of automakers, wireless providers, and software developers they needed to reverse direction on the number of distractions inside vehicles. “A car is not a mobile (communication) device,” said Strickland. He promised new regulations for the new technologies, and soon.
State laws may also need stiffer penalties. Currently, violating California’s ban on cell phones and texting brings low fines and does not increase driving insurance premiums. If scofflaw drivers think safe behavior is someone else’s duty, perhaps society should send them a stronger message, with regular reminders, that we’re all in this together.