We all have witnessed drivers on the highway applying makeup, shaving, looking at maps or other reading materials, and focusing on everything but the road. But in an eye-opening series in the New York Times entitled “Driven to Distraction“, studies have apparently shown that drivers using cellphones are four times as likely to cause a crash as other drivers, and their likelihood of causing a car crash is equal to that of someone who is intoxicated with a blood alcohol of .08! Worse yet, for those of us who feel that we’ve reduced the risk of distracted driving by using hands free devices, this can actually increase the risks by making us believe that the behavior is safe.
A 2003 study done at Harvard University estimated that distracted driving caused by cellphone usage resulted in an annual 2,600 fatalities and 330,000 accidents with moderate or severe injuries. A particularly compelling story mentioned in the series is that of Christopher Hill, a 20 year old Oklahoma resident, who was so involved in a call while driving that he ran a red light and broadsided a car driven by Linda Doyle, who died at the scene. When the investigating officer asked Mr. Hill what color the light was, he responded that he hadn’t even seen the traffic light at all. New York is one of only 5 states around the United States that ban hand-held cellphones while driving, but no state legislature has banned talking on a cellphone while driving. It is clear that the cellphone carriers, including Verizon Wireless, Sprint, AT & T and T-Mobile are a very strong lobby in Washington, and banning all cellphone usage in cars, even with hand-held devices, is a political “non-starter.”
According to a study by the Governors Highway Association, 8 states in the U.S. ban cellphone use for novice drivers and 4 states do so for bus drivers, with 13 states banning cellphones for novices and bus drivers. 14 states ban texting for all drivers and 9 ban texting for novices only. The New York Legislature has sent a bill to Governor Paterson to ban texting while driving, (we will write about this in a separate post) which he is expected to sign and would go into effect on November 1, 2009.
As part of Mr. Hill’s sentence for his Oklahoma misdemeanor conviction in the death of Linda Doyle, he must perform 240 hours of community service discussing the risks of distracted driving and speaking to classrooms of students about “talking on a cellphone and killing someone.” Cars over the last few years are often equipped with navigation systems with voice commands, which allow drivers to keep their focus on the road rather than viewing a screen. However, with the advance in technology giving us audio, video, GPS, the Internet and give and take with voice commands, it is clear that the safety issues of distracted driving are not going away any time soon.