Distracted driving has caused car accidents since the invention of the automobile; back in the late 1970’s, inattentive driving was cited as the biggest cause of motor vehicle accidents in the state of Indiana (from a study by Indiana University). Currently, there are more technologies that take our eyes of the road than there have ever been. In the United States, somewhere between 25% to 50% of motor vehicle collisions are caused by distracted driving; 18% of fatal accidents involve cell phones distracting the driver, according to police and insurance reports.
While it seems like one broad category, distracted driving involves three kinds of distractions: visual, cognitive, and manual. A visual distraction means simply taking your eyes off the road (and possibly hitting something or driving into a ditch); cognitive distraction is taking your mind off driving (exhaustion, heavy stress, and anger all fall into this category); and manual distraction is physically taking your hands off of the wheel (to answer a call, change the radio, sip some coffee, etc).
Any one of the three types of distraction can cause a nasty accident; many new personal technologies involve more than one type of distraction, and texting involves all three. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that drivers using hand-held devices are four times as likely to be involved in bad accidents than drivers who don’t (this information is also supported by a study from the New England Journal of Medicine). Age and experience also contribute to driving while distracted; 16% of fatal wrecks of drivers under 20 years old were at least partially caused by driver distraction, according to the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration. Distraction plus inexperience is a terrible combination for a driver.
To give a wider picture of cell phone usage and driving, here’s a statistic from a survey by by Prevention Magazine: over 85% of 100,000,000 cell phone users commonly talk and drive. And 28% of traffic accidents, both major and minor, happen as a result of cell phone use or texting, reports the National Safety Council. Each year, 1.4 million motor vehicle crashes are caused by conversational cell phone use; 200,000 are caused by texting and driving. These numbers are huge, and result in a lot of personal injuries, deaths, vehicular damage, and insurance claims.
Although recent technological developments around cell phones have made them marginally safer to use while driving (blue-tooth devices, voice-activated dialing, built-in speaker phones), they still pose a threat. If someone is in a screaming match over the phone, say, they’ve just found out a spouse is cheating, is it really going to matter that they’re using a blue-tooth? Their mind is not on the road. Starting with New York in 1995, forty states have proposed bills concerning cellular phone use in cars; not many have been successful, due to the rampant lobbying of the cell phone industry. And, it is true that in an emergency, a cell phone is very handy; it’s all the non-emergency talking and driving that’s got to stop.
Towards that end, officials from the Federal transportation officials recently announced a new organization, along the lines of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, to fight cell phone use while driving; the group will work to pass laws curtailing this activity. Current laws operate in only 19 of the 50 states, and many are toothless, requiring cops to have another reason (besides talking and driving) to pull the car over. Last year, President Obama banned texting while driving in all government vehicles, and on government issued phones in employees’ cars. In another positive development, AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety and Nationwide Insurance is about to step up their education efforts around distracted driving, and lobby for stronger laws.