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Opinion: Stay focused on the road, not the phone

April 28, 2010


We've all been there. Driving the same route day-in and day-out, a hundred times before, with little to differentiate one trip from another. Then there's that one moment when something unforeseen occurs requiring you to instantly maneuver your vehicle and test how good your reflexes and anti-lock brakes really are - making this all-too-routine trip very different from the rest. Maybe it was an unexpected bottleneck slowing traffic, a darting deer, or a blown-out tire. Whatever the reason, the difference between continuing on your mundane drive and having to call your insurance agent (or worse, an ambulance) probably had to do with whether you were distracted from driving at the moment the event occurred. There are many distractions that prevent a driver from focusing on the task of driving: changing the radio or a CD, talking to passengers, eating, using a cell phone or text messaging, to name a few.

Distraction results from any non-driving activity that lessens the attention of the driver on the primary task of driving and increases the risk of crashing or causing others to crash. There are three main types of distractions: (1) visual (taking your eyes off of the road), (2) manual (taking your hands off of the wheel), and (3) cognitive (taking your mind off of what you're doing). While all distractions can endanger a driver's safety, texting is the most alarming because it involves all three types of distraction. To combat this obvious threat, states have been passing texting bans for all drivers at a feverish pace. Washington was the first state to enact a texting-while-driving ban in May 2007. Since then, 22 states have banned texting for all drivers.

Research on distracted driving reveals some surprising and disturbing facts. According to a study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University, driving while using a cell phone reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent. Recent numbers for 2008 from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) noted that nearly 6,000 people died in crashes involving a distracted driver and more than half a million were injured. Unfortunately younger, inexperienced drivers less than 20 years of age are the most vulnerable and have the highest percentage of distraction-related fatal crashes. Fortunately, in 2009, the Indiana General Assembly passed a ban on the use of cell phones (texting and talking) while driving for drivers under the age of 18. However, all drivers are shown to have issues with driving when distracted by cell phone use. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety noted that drivers who use hand-held devices are four times more likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. Even more alarming, a study from the University of Utah found that using a cell phone while driving, whether it's hand-held or handsfree, delays a driver's reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent!

So whether traveling home from work or driving from one meeting to the next, that call or e-mail can wait. Keep your driving safe, uneventful, and stay focused on the road ahead!

Ryan Klitzsch is dvision director, Traffic Safety, at the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author's.

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