Americans have long been aware of the risks posed by driving impaired–whether that means under the influence of alcohol or narcotics or simply being tired behind the wheel. Despite the greater prevalence of education and increased awareness on these matters, they continue to pose a tremendous danger on our roads and highways. This risk factor has also gone way up with recent technological advances, which have made the last few years–corresponding roughly to the meteoric rise of the smartphone–into a new age of distracted driving.
According to a US government initiative dedicated to studying and solving this problem, distracted driving can be defined as any activity that can divert a driver’s attention away from the road; in recent years, however, you can bet that most of the time that attention has drifted to a cell phone, mp3 player, computer or tablet, and that texting, tweeting, status updating or even reading a GPS is the culprit. In fact, the present day statistics surrounding this phenomenon are shocking: at any daylight moment in America, it’s estimated that 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or other electronic devices while driving. What’s more, this number has held steady since 2010 and shows no signs of lowering.
Beyond the facts on texting and driving, the effects these trends have had are also quite devastating although, frankly, they are far from surprising: namely, more distracted drivers are getting into more crashes. That these trends largely affect young drivers, who are simultaneously more technologically-literate and less experienced on the road, is also not surprising. Recently it was reported that 10% of all drivers under 20 involved in fatal crashes were distracted at the time. And drivers in their 20s make up 27% of those involved in fatal accidents.
So what can be done? Well, aside from increasing awareness and education (similar to the way the word was spread about the dangers of drunk or impaired driving), the answer lies with our friend the law. In fact, states across the country have been enacting or toughening legislation related to distracted driving. In Massachusetts, for instance, it is illegal to text while driving, period. There is also a blanket ban on all novice drivers against any and all cell phone use, even of the hands-free variety. This is an important point as well, since hands-free cell phones have not been shown to be significantly safer than regular handsets in any studies conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or NHTSA.
However, even more important than educating our kids or pushing for tougher laws, the best thing we can do to fight distracted driving is to become a good example ourselves. Each of us, whether we care to admit it or not, has probably fallen victim to technological distraction while driving. If we want to stop the dangerous trend, we have to start with ourselves.