Distracted driving on the uptick

By Allen Penticoff

The line at the TeenDrive 365 distracted driving simulator at the Chicago Auto Show let you see what the current river saw while you were in line. – Allen Penticoff
The Toyota TeenDrive 365 distracted driving simulator at the Chicago Auto Show featured a screen that let you see what the current driver saw while you were in line. Photo – Allen Penticoff

Raise your hand if you’ve never been distracted while driving. I don’t see any hands. That’s being honest. While I’m about to preach against distracted driving, I’m guilty too. Once I was riding my motorcycle, a Norton 850, in stop and go traffic when a pretty girl walking on a sidewalk to my left distracted me. My attention returned to what I was doing just in time to hit the brakes and barely tap the bumper of a car in front of me. There have been other close calls caused by messing with phones, food, or music.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) studies this problem of “distracted driving” and reports that eight people are killed and over 1,000 injured DAILY in the United States due to distracted driving. Thus over 3,000 citizens were killed in 2014 and 400,000 injured as a direct result of distracted driving. That’s like one 9/11 terror attack every year – but we are doing it to ourselves, not some bad guys. One out of five injury motor vehicle accidents involves distracted driving.

The CDC breaks the problem down like this – there are three forms of distracted driving: Visual – where the driver has taken their eyes off the road; Manual – taking your hands off the wheel; and Cognitive – when your mind is not on driving. Texting while driving is an especially hazardous activity because all three types of distraction are involved. During a typical text done while driving at 55 mph the vehicle will cover a distance of a football field. A lot can happen in 300 feet when you’re not looking.

According to the CDC, nearly 70 percent of American drivers aged 18 to 64 report having driven while distracted within the last 30 days and 31 percent report having texted while driving in the same period. I know they are because they don’t go when the traffic light turns green! I may wear my horn out. People driving slower than traffic or even stopped, weaving around, making last minute lane changes – I see it all the time, with their head tilted to their phone or head down looking at their lap. Not only is it illegal to text and drive – it is downright homicidal.

Drivers under 20 are most prone to doing this according to the CDC. Two of five students texted while driving in the past 30 days and those who text while driving are far more likely to ride with a driver who has been drinking or drink and drive themselves. By the time they graduate high school, 48 percent will be involved in an accident caused by the driver texting. You might consider getting the device at Text.Ninja that stops teens from text messages appearing on phones while driving. The device and app determine the car is being driven, blocks message announcements and sends out an auto-reply (saying more or less), “busy driving will get back to you soon.” The Text.Ninja website has some interesting distracted driving statistical graphs – and shows texting while driving is more than twice as likely of an accident than driving with a blood alcohol content of .08. Which, respectively, are 23 times and 11 times more likely to have an accident than an undistracted driver.

At the Chicago Auto Show I attended a seminar and awards ceremony put on by Drive Safe Chicago where a contest for high school students to produce a PSA video for the National Road Safety Foundation (NRSF.org) about distracted driving was revealed. Three videos were shown, and all were good. The winner would have their PSA made professionally by an Emmy award-winning director for nationwide broadcast (see Teen Lane on their website for this year’s contest information). However, the most poignant of them, was one where the student was sitting in school at a table exchanging texts with his mother who was driving, about when she would pick him up – but the texts stopped as his mother had been in an accident and the student was bewildered and worried as to why she was no longer responding to the texts.

Across the hall was the Toyota TeenDrive 365 simulator in a full sized car. Here you took the driver’s seat and virtual reality goggles were put on. As you drove through a virtual city with the car, it responded like a real one – meanwhile, you were encouraged to mess with the navigation screen, answer your cellphone or take a drink from a cup. Always about the time you were distracted – something happened on the street. It did not go well. Toyota then sent you an email with a link to view your experience online.

Throughout the auto show, I saw ever more evidence that the auto manufacturers are sending mixed signals. On one hand they discourage distracted driving, yet the new cars have more cup holders, places to lay your tablet or big cell phone within easy reach of the driver, charging and connectivity ports. Large navigation screens and control menus for everything from the radio to the heater require a look at the screen and make a touch – then more touching, and more touching. Voice activated commands are supposed to alleviate some of this look and touch problem, but my experience is that it doesn’t work all that well, and is distractive itself. Now Google and Apple have systems built into the autos that allow what is happening on your phone to appear on and be dealt with on the navigation screen. Convenient – but dangerous.

April is Distracted Driving Awareness month. Start by turning off the ringer on your phone while driving. Put it out of sight. No text, call, or email is worth a life.

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