Distracted Driving Addressed by Politicians, Scientists, and Advocates

A two-day summit addresses the growing problem of texting and talking while driving.

September 30, 2009

It's not just teenagers. Adults with phones to their ears are just as dangerous behind the wheel, say researchers.

RODALE NEWS, EMMUAS, PA—"R u home yet?" Typing that behind the wheel of a moving vehicle just raised your risk of getting into a potentially fatal crash by 2,300 percent (!). So said one of the many scientists, politicians, and other public officials who have convened in Washington, DC, today and tomorrow for the Department of Transportation's first ever Distracted Driving Summit.

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And it's not just texting that officials are worried about. Smartphones, iPods, navigation systems, and even electronic billboards distract drivers from the relatively simple task of operating a car. Add that to the existing low-tech distractions of kids acting up in the backseat and drivers eating or drinking, reading, writing, and putting on makeup—all things people commonly do behind the wheel—and you've got a serious public health risk, said Kristin Backstrom, senior manager at the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "Driving is a privilege and not a right," she said. "We have to think about not just our own lives and our own safety, but those of the people around us."

Here are five major takeaways from today's panels; check back tomorrow for more coverage of the summit:

#1: We all know it's wrong, but we do it anyway. The public seems fully aware of the fact that texting and fiddling with cellphones lead to seriously distracted driving. Backstrom presented findings from a AAA survey that revealed that 87 percent of people know that texting while driving is dangerous, yet 20 percent admitted to doing it anyway. Similarly, the data showed that 85 percent of people know that talking on a cellphone puts other drivers at risk, yet nearly every American driver has talked on the phone behind the wheel at least once. While statistics on accidents caused by cellphone or texting distractions (or any other distraction, for that matter) are hard to come by, research has pretty much confirmed, hands down, that they increase your risk. And texting seems to be the worst. Tom Dingus, PhD, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, conducted real-world driving research and found that texting leads to a twenty-threefold increase in crash risks ("That's 2,300 percent!" he said). Compare that to with a fourfold increase for talking on the phone, a better than threefold increase for putting on makeup, and almost twofold bump for eating or drinking.

#2: Hands-free devices are not a cure-all. The issue of laws banning handheld cellphones came up more than once, but many panelists felt these bans did little to correct distracted driving. For one thing, said John Lee, PhD, professor in the department of industrial and systems engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studies have found that drivers who use handheld phones tend to be more thoughtful about when they use them—for instance, opting to talk when traffic is light—and they drive more slowly, with more space between themselves and the car in front of them. However, "hands-free devices stop drivers from being judicious about when they use those phones," he said. And as David Eby, PhD, research associate professor and head of social and behavioral analysis at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, pointed out, research has found that it's not talking on the phone that puts drivers at the greatest risk. It's actually dialing the phone number that leads to more crashes.

#3: We all think we can multitask while we drive. "We live in an age of multitasking, both in our work and our personal lives," said Key Dismukes, PhD, chief scientist in the Human Systems Integration Division at NASA's Ames Research Center. "In some situations, we seem to be able to perform two tasks together without much difficulty," he said. Driving is such a routine task, he added, that we often get lulled into feeling that adding something like sending a text message or a conversation to the mix won't cause that much harm. But, he said, habitual multitaskers more easily succumb to distracted driving. Furthermore, we aren't multitasking when we drive and do other things. We're really "task switching," and there's always a small time lag when we change our focus from one task to another—just long enough to get into a major collision. Another researcher presented evidence that people think they're better drivers than they really are. One study found that the people who think that texting or talking on phones impacts their driving least actually performed the worst on driving performance tests.

#4: It's not just teenagers. During the last panel of the day, automotive and wireless industry representatives presented educational campaigns about the dangers of texting and talking while driving, many aimed at teenagers because they're the most inexperienced drivers, have the highest crash rates, and more eagerly adopt distracting technologies. However, earlier in the day, Kristin Backstrom, from AAA, said, "This goes all the way up the age stream. We are the examples for the younger drivers that we are raising." Parents who talk on cellphones, answer emails on a Blackberry, or engage in other activities not immediately relevant to driving set bad examples for their soon-to-be teenage drivers. Responsible adult drivers will have responsible teenage drivers.

#5: Laws and technology help, but it's really all up to drivers. At the conference, Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) outlined a new bill he had introduced in Congress that would make it mandatory for states to ban texting while driving or risk losing 25 percent of their federal highway funding, and a state senator from Maine reminded the conference attendees that the state recently enacted a total ban on performing any activity behind the wheel that isn't immediately related to the task of driving. Representatives from the automotive industry presented plans for vehicle-based safety systems (some that already exist) that help will alert drivers when they stray from their lanes, and even measure a driver’s level of distractedness and warn about impending collisions. However, Tom Dingus from Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute compared those with "jumping out of a plane knowing your primary parachute doesn't work. You just hope your secondary chute is going to open up." Those technologies help, he added, but they don't mean we should be less responsible drivers. Ultimately, we know that multitasking behind the wheel puts other drivers at risk, and we need to stop doing it. "No text message is so urgent that it is worth dying over," said Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). Or, as one attendee who'd lost her sister in a car accident involving a distracted driver said, "Realize that the person in the car next to you is somebody's family member, and that by putting on your makeup, answering that phone call, sending that text message, you're saying that is more important than someone else's life."