It happens every day. You notice someone veering slightly in and out of their lane. You’re at a stoplight; the light turns green and they don’t move. When you get next to them, you’re almost sure what you’re going to see – they’re on their cell phone. I’ve seen it take all forms, too. Some drivers have their phones in their laps, looking down periodically, while others hold them blatantly against the steering wheel. I once saw a driver on I-78 texting with both hands, arms extended through the upper portion of the steering wheel, using his forearms to steer the car — all at 70 miles per hour. Last week, I passed a driver with a cigarette in one hand and a cell phone in the other. All of these are incidents of distracted driving.
According to www.distraction.gov, and citing various sources, “in 2013, 3,154 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. This represents a 6.7 percent decrease in the number of fatalities recorded in 2012. Unfortunately, approximately 424,000 people were injured, which is an increase from the 421,000 people who were injured in 2012.”
Here are some other daunting facts gathered by the government:
- 153.3 billion: Number of text messages (as of December 2013) sent in the U.S. every month.
- 10: Percentage of drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes and reported as distracted at the time of the crash. This age group has the largest proportion of drivers who are distracted.
- 27: Percentage of distracted drivers involved in fatal crashes who are in their 20s.
- 666,000: The approximate number of drivers, who at any given daylight moment across America, are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving.
- 3x: The increased risk of getting into a crash while engaging in visual-manual subtasks (such as reaching for a phone, dialing and texting) associated with the use of hand-held phones and other portable devices.
- 5 seconds: The average time your eyes are off the road while texting. When traveling at 55mph, that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field blindfolded.
- 25: The percentage of teens who respond to a text message once or more every time they drive. 20 percent of teens and 10 percent of parents admit that they have extended multi-message text conversations while driving.
The distraction.gov website details heart-wrenching stories of children, wives, husbands, mothers and fathers, killed or severely and permanently injured by distracted drivers. Clearly, drivers must know that looking at their cell phone means they’re not looking at the road, or anything else in their path. In fact, there’s a federal survey that indicates that even though 94% of Americans believe it should be illegal to text while driving, they continue to do it. Why is this? What’s behind the decision to disregard a known danger in favor of the urge to look at one’s phone?
Well, there’s psychology involved. And the habits fueled by modern smartphones appear to be at the root of the issue. Some studies suggest that it’s become a compulsion to constantly check your phone throughout the day. Therefore, it becomes natural for such conduct to carry over once you’re behind the wheel. Other research has indicated that feeling compelled to respond no matter where you are decreases the anxiety that might be associated with not being connected. So, how does one get beyond not responding to your cell phone while driving?
The trick might be to form a new habit to override the old one. Some researchers have likened it to quitting smoking. One suggestion is to put your phone out of reach inside the cabin of your car so that it’s totally out of the range of temptation to fumble for it while your hands are on the wheel. The bottom line seems to indicate that it’s got to start with a change of mindset, e.g., “I’m not going to use my phone while I’m driving.”
One last legal note. It appears the Pennsylvania courts have yet to find that the distraction of a cell phone while driving constitutes the “evil motive” or “conscious indifference to the rights of others” required to state a claim for punitive damages for regular drivers. However, one Lehigh County Judge recently found a common carrier (bus) potentially liable for punitive damages for driving while distracted.
I invite you to log on to www.distraction.gov and watch the tragic and compelling videos of “The Faces of Distracted Driving.” You could even text them or e-mail them to your teen drivers and others you suspect are offenders. Just don’t do it while you (or they) are behind the wheel.