Since the invention of the automobile, drunk driving has been a public health concern. Fatalities from drunk drivers hit epidemic proportions in the early 1980s. In 1982, over 21,000 people were killed in drunk driving crashes.
These astounding numbers triggered a forceful public response. Through the efforts of organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and concerted public education programs, drunk driving crash deaths have been cut by over half. In 2013, the last year for which we have statistics, 10,000 people were killed in drunk driving crashes. While we still have a ways to go, the trend is in the right direction.
But, just as we were 35 years ago with drunk driving, we face a growing problem of distracted driving. The use of technology, including smartphones, texting and in-dash entertainment systems, increases the likelihood of getting into a crash by three times. Between 2011 and 2012, there was a nine percent increase in the number of people injured in a crash involving a distracted driver.
Most worryingly is the fact that distracted driving is actually more dangerous than drunk driving. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), texting while driving is six times more dangerous than driving while intoxicated. An independent study conducted by the University of Utah concluded that, “The impairments associated with using a cell phone while driving can be as profound as those associated with driving while drunk.”
These dangers are compounded when you consider the sheer number of drivers who are distracted behind the wheel. In the United States, at any given moment of daylight, approximately 660,000 drivers are using a cell phone or manipulating an electronic device.
Half of all teenagers and adults admit to riding in a car where the driver was texting. A quarter of teens respond to one or more text messages every time they drive. This compares to just eight percent of high schoolers who admitted to driving after drinking, a number that’s actually fallen by over half since 1997.
There is also a perception problem when it comes to distracted driving. The common notion is that the distraction only occurs when a driver is manually using a device (texting or dialing a number) or when their eyes leave the road to complete a task. While this does increase the chances for a crash, research shows that hands-free cell phone use is not substantially safer than hand-held use.
Hands-free conversation created what is called “inattention blindness.” It impairs reaction times and results in later breaking for vehicles stopped ahead. Talking on the phone, hands-free or not, is more distracting than conversing with a passenger in the same vehicle.
All of this research indicates that we need a national education campaign for distracted driving similar to those that have helped decrease instances of drunk driving. While texting and hands-free laws and regulations play a role in curbing this epidemic, we need to change the mindset and culture that enables it in the first place.
April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month. Take time this month to truly reflect on your driving habits. Do you read or send texts? Use a hands-free device for calls? Do you really need to?
Please consider taking the pledge to end distracted driving. With your help, we can reverse this dangerous trend and make the roads safer for all of us.