Automobiles crash for many different reasons: weather conditions, unfamiliar roads, excessive speed, inexperienced drivers, and distractions. Of these, it seems that the last two are the easiest to control, but consistently cause many fatalities.
Distracted driving is particularly hazardous, because taking one’s eyes and mind off the task of driving for a matter of seconds is like driving blindfolded, which can cause a speeding car to travel – essentially driverless - more than 300 feet in just seconds.
Of the approximately 37,000 Americans who die in traffic accidents each year, almost 9 percent, or close to 3,700, are the result of distracted driving. This category of hazardous driving includes any activity that takes a driver’s mind off the road. Distracted driving is defined as operating a motor vehicle while:
When combined with another complicating factor, distracted driving can turn deadly very quickly. These other factors include:
The National Safety Council estimates that cell phones were the distraction in 26 percent of accidents it studied in 2014, and most of those involved simply talking on the phone, not texting, which was pinned as the cause in just five percent of accidents. Those most likely to be involved in a fatal accident as a result of cell phone use while driving are in their 20s. This group represents 24 percent of drivers in fatal accidents but 35 percent of distracted driving accidents that involve cell phone use. Younger drivers ages 15-19 made up 13 percent of drivers distracted by cell phones who were involved in accidents.
Further evidence of distracted driving is the rising number of non-occupant or pedestrian and cyclist fatalities. Nearly 7,000 non-motorists were killed by drivers in 2017, including about 6,000 pedestrians and almost 800 cyclists. Millions more suffer nonfatal but debilitating injuries from auto accidents that cost billions of dollars in lost income and productivity.
Despite significant changes to automobile safety features and design over the past several decades, the accident fatality rate has not declined as much as it could. In 1970, 60,000 people were killed in auto accidents. Since then, laws and public education campaigns have made safety features such as seat belts and airbags mandatory, reduced drinking and driving, and secured children in special seats. Experts foresee only incremental advances in auto safety until 2050 or afterward, when most vehicles will be autonomous, removing human error – and human distractions – from the equation.
Human error, whether misjudgement, impaired judgement, or distracted driving, accounts for about 90 percent of vehicle accidents. Experts predict that 40 percent of rear-end and chain-reaction crashes can be eliminated by crash avoidance technology and autonomous driving modes in new cars.
This information is reinforced by self-reported statistics offered by the National Safety Council that show cell phone use by drivers has fallen from a high of 11 percent in 2007 to a little more than 5 percent in 2017.
Many states have enacted laws prohibiting the use of texting, and some severely limit any use of cell phones while driving, in order to reduce the likelihood of such accidents. Drivers in at least 36 states who are youthful (age 18 or under) or who are on a probationary driving period (new drivers) are banned from using cell phones at the wheel. Many states also have specific prohibitions on cell phone use in construction zones or school zones where pedestrians are likely to be present. New Hampshire has one of the most stringent laws which has monetary penalties for the first and second offense and a mandatory two-year license suspension for a third offense of using a handheld device while driving. Florida, which does not ban the use of cell phones for any class of driver, also allows use of headphones while driving as long as only one earphone or earbud is used; Florida also has a law that prohibits municipalities for enacting local laws limiting cell phone use in vehicles.
Despite the laws and penalties, it’s nearly impossible to overcome the conditioning of the human brain. We are wired to respond to chemical stimuli, and smart phones provide the conduit for our reactions. Teens in particular feel a nearly irresistible impulse to experience those surges of feel-good chemicals that can be released through social interaction, which developers have exploited with phone and online applications. That’s why young people are often busy with dozens of messages and social media platforms on their phones. It takes significant self-control to overcome this natural wiring, and why it can be so difficult to enforce rules about distractions when driving, whether they be phone messages, calls, or friends in the vehicle with them.
Personal stories of loss and injury have flooded the media in an attempt to appeal to drivers to put down their phones and pay attention to the road. Featuring distraught loved ones, the message is always the same: texting can wait. Such was the case of a Canadian family whose 18 year old daughter drove in front of a speeding locomotive because she was distracted by her phone.
A cooperative arrangement between the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons and a motor vehicle industry group, the Auto Alliance, resulted in a website called DecidetoDrive.org. On the site, drivers are encouraged to report the bad behavior of other drivers, including their license plate number and information on others in the car, in an attempt to publicly shame. The website also allows people to send anonymized emails to people they know who frequently drive distractedly.
One family that lost members to a distracted driver tried to sue Apple, the maker of the iPhone, alleging that the company was negligent in the crash because it knew the phones were dangerous and had the technology to disable them so they could not be used by drivers. Apple actually has a patent on technology that can disable phones in such situations but claims, in part, that it has not created the technology and that if used it cannot be limited to the driver’s phone only, thus disabling passengers’ phones as well.
Many apps are available that either disable phones when driving or make them safer, whether sending automated messages in response to incoming messages or allowing the driver to respond to texts via voice. However this type of use does not completely eliminate distraction, as only five percent of distracted driving accidents involve texting.