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Worsening driver distraction

Other than individual reform, there is no way to substantially end driver distraction caused by behavior like roadside rubbernecking, fiddling with vehicle controls, or daydreaming.

We’ve been doing those things for years, along with disciplining children, grooming, changing CDs, et cetera.  Drivers may have even achieved a degree of proficiency for some of those old multi-tasks over time.  At least people seem to moderate those habits, since none of that stuff has reached epidemical status regarding traffic accidents or vehicle death.

But the latest distraction afflicting motorists is arguably becoming an epidemic.  Using cell phones, which are now essentially personal computers in the form of cell phones, have made all of the other driver distractions pale in comparison.  Beginning with phone conversations, this distraction advanced to texting and beyond to checking social media, surfing the web and answering emails.

Phone conversations are bad enough due to the cognitive attention diverted from the driving task.  However, the remaining personal device activities not only steal a driver’s mental readiness, but actually take their eyes off the roadway ahead for several seconds at a time.

Studies have revealed that a serious phone conversation can render a driver’s ability to react to an emergency to that of one legally inebriated.  On top of that, drivers who are texting or visually monitoring a phone display are literally driving blind for several second intervals!

Speaking of inebriated drivers, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D.) launched a campaign bringing awareness to drunk and drugged driving in 1980 that has been widely applauded over many decades.  It may be time for another group to tackle the ever-growing problem of device distraction.

As for now, one of the problems is that many offenders believe they don’t have a problem, but others do.  For example, in a March 2016 NSC survey, 67% of Americans felt “at risk” due to another’s technology use while driving, while only 25% believed that their distractions put themselves or others at risk.

The Federal government has already suggested that vehicle and device manufacturers work toward reducing distraction, even hinting that devices should be rendered inoperable when vehicles are in motion.  But since only 24% of drivers believe that making it impossible to use non-automotive technology while driving would make the driving experience better, automakers are reluctant to alienate consumers.


While many states have regulations addressing the problem, enforcement is difficult.  As a result, until drivers are caught, or experience a close call or accident, they feel immune.  Also, many states do not have anti-texting laws, and those who do don’t forbid checking social media.

Currently, four states, Montana, Arizona, Texas and Missouri ban neither texting nor use of hand-held devices.  Texting is banned in the remaining 46 states, with 14 of them banning use handheld devices while driving.  No states ban the use of hands-free devices.  Washington bans handheld devices and Idaho does not, while they both prohibit texting.

To curtail motorist device use, maybe stiffer fines are in order.  In 2014, an Irish law put texting while driving on the same level as drunken driving.  Cited drivers receive a fine of 1000 euros (about $1060).  Second time offenders are faced with a $2,120 fine and up to three months jail.

Whatever the solution, the topic deserves attention — drivers, especially those aged 16-24, visibly manipulating handheld devices while driving is steadily increasing.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at precisiondriving@spokesman.com.

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