Distracted Driving: Its Dangers, Laws, Consequences and Means of Prevention

Distracted driving can cost lives. In 2013, distracted driving killed over 3,000 Americans and injured more than 420,000 others, according to distraction.gov.  The family members, friends and acquaintances of its victims can attest to distracted driving being a deadly serious driver safety problem.  There is no phone call, text, tweet or glance at social media that is worth a human life. It may even be your own.

Distracted Driving : Its Dangers, Laws, Consequences and Means of Prevention

What is Distracted Driving?

Distracted driving is any non-driving activity in which you engage that removes your attention from your driving.  When you are behind the wheel of a car, your primary task is driving that car safely.  Any other activity in which you engage while driving is a potential distraction.   Distracted driving not only endangers you but also your passengers, other drivers and bystanders as well.

A driving distraction occurs any time you take your eyes off the road and surroundings, your hands off of the steering wheel, and your focus off of the task of driving.  Text messaging is the most dangerous distraction of all because it requires you to do all three: take your eyes, your hands, and your cognitive attention from your driving.

Why then, if distracted driving is so dangerous, do millions of Americans continue to do it?  Many know the risks they take with phone use, particularly texting, while driving but continue to do it anyway.  Others do not fully comprehend the dangers.  Still more forget or elect not to turn off their devices when they begin to drive.  The most effective means of ending distracted driving is through educating all drivers of its dangers.

Types of Driver Distractions

There are many types of driving distractions.  These include:

  • Use of your cell phone/smartphone
  • Texting
  • Watching a video
  • Using a GPS or other navigational system (maps)
  • Adjusting the radio, CD or MP3 player, and other dashboard controls
  • Talking to passengers
  • Eating and drinking
  • Smoking
  • Reading
  • Grooming
  • Attending to children

Conclusions drawn from the National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS) inform us that at any given time in the United States, over 650,000 drivers use their cell phones or manipulate other hand held electronic devices as they drive.  Research also demonstrates the potential of being involved in an accident is three times more likely among cell phone users than non-users.  There is a direct correlation between the increased use of your cell phone when driving and your risk of being in an accident.

CTIA – The Wireless Society® reports that over 153 billion text messages are sent in America and its territories each month.  Many of those messages are sent and received by drivers on our roads. The fact is, according to Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) reports, drivers are completely focused on their driving only 46 percent of the time they are behind the wheel.

According to research conducted by AT & T, the following are all Smartphone activities and types of distractions drivers admit to while driving.

  • 61% – Send and receive texts
  • 33% – Send and receive email
  • 28% – Search on the internet
  • 27% – Check Facebook
  • 17% – Take selfies
  • 14% – Send and receive Tweets
  • 14% – Check Instagram
  • 12% – Take a video
  • 11% – Participate in Snapchat
  • 10% – Engage in video chats

All of these activities are done by drivers in heavy machines at speeds of up to 70 miles per hour.  If that is not frightening enough, the AT&T study reveals other distracted driving behaviors.  Of the Twitter posters, 30 percent of them report doing it “all the time” while driving.  Those who take the risk of accessing social networks as they drive list addiction to it as their reason for this dangerous behavior.

In addition to the in-vehicle forms of distraction already listed, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration lists another type of inattention: cognitive activities.  This includes thinking about personal and family problems, finances, and work related strategies.

Dangers of Distracted Driving

Research conducted by the NHTSA and many other groups indicates many potential dangers from distracted driving.  One of the most notable findings is that distractions of any kind, particularly involving hand held devices such as phones, significantly increased the amount of time drivers were not looking at the road.  In another study from the NHTSA (conducted through examinations of in-vehicle instrumentation) indicate that 65 percent of all near-accidents and almost 80 percent of all actual car accidents were preceded by the driver looking away from the road before it happened.  While texting, your eyes leave the road for an average of five seconds.  To give this fact some perspective, in five seconds, at 55 miles per hour, you can travel the length of a football field.

Just talking on the phone while driving is a distraction, whether we realize it or not.  Studies show that listening to and engaging in a conversation pulls significant mental attention away from driving and undermines your performance. This occurs with both hands-free and hand held phones.  Research conducted by the Carnegie Mellon Institute (2008) demonstrates the cognitive distraction of a conversation, even with a hand-free device, causes drivers to miss vital audio and visual cues that help them avoid an accident. No one is exempt.  CMI and NHTSA studies indicate that drivers make more errors when talking on a cell phone than when having a conversation with a passenger.

Entirely new problems arise when employees who are driving company vehicles drive distracted.  They are not only endangering themselves and other drivers, but they are putting their company at risk of financial disaster and legal liabilities if they are in a crash.  Oregon previously allowed cell phone calls for work related reasons but have recently removed that exception from their state law banning cell phone use while driving.

Research conducted by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) demonstrates that parents who frequently engage in behaviors that distract them from their driving more often have teenage children who do the same when they begin to drive.   Training young drivers to avoid distraction starts when they are young children riding along with their parents.  This is important to understand because our youngest drivers, teens with the least driving experience, are the drivers most at risk of distracted driving accidents.  Drivers under the age of 20 are involved in 16 percent of all accidents caused by distracted driving.  Ten percent of “under 20” drivers involved in fatal accidents are reported as distracted at the time of the event.  This is the age group most at risk.

Research conducted by the Pew Research Center (PRI) indicates a fourth of all teenagers respond one or more times to a text message when they drive.  A fifth of all teens admit to engaging in multi-message texting for extended periods of time while they are driving. Almost half of them say they have been in a car when the driver on a cell phone put others and themselves in danger. Finally, teenagers send text messages or read the ones they receive while driving 26 times more frequently than their parents believe that they do.

The problem is exacerbated, according to researchers at PRI, by the fact that 4 out 5 teenage drivers actually believe that texting while driving does not affect their performance on the road.  Young drivers, 18 to 20 years old, answer incoming calls while driving at a rate of 68 percent.   When teens first begin to drive they may not engage in these distracting behaviors but as their driving confidence grows, so does their distraction level.  All studies point to texting and calling as significant risk factors for novice drivers.

This trend continues into other age groups as well.  Drivers in their 20s are the cause of 27 percent of all fatal crashes that involve a distracted driver, according to the NHTSA.  They also report older drivers are at risk as well.  Both young and old drivers have reactions that are 18 percent slower when they are using cell phones.  This leads to a two-fold increase in their involvement in rear-end collisions.  Finally, their research indicates that drivers using a cell phone are as profoundly impaired as those driving drunk.

Oregon Laws Regarding Distracted Driving

Oregon is currently one of 41 states that ban texting on their roads.  Oregon is one of 13 states that outlaw hand-held cell phones when driving.  Oregon is also one of 37 states that completely ban drivers under the age of 18 from using a cell phone while driving.

In Oregon and other states, a primary law allows an officer to ticket a driver for an offence even if no other traffic violation has first occurred.  When secondary laws are involved, an officer may only issue a second ticket if the driver was first pulled over for a different traffic violation.  Oregon has three primary laws regarding distracted driving for which a driver may be penalized.

The three Oregon distracted driving primary laws are:

  • Handheld cell phone or device ban for drivers of any age
  • Ban on all handheld and hands-free cell phone (mobile communication devices) use for novice drivers (anyone under the age of 18)
  • Ban on texting while driving for drivers of any age

Fines in Oregon for distracted driving violations are $500. This rate rose in January 2014 from the previous limit of $250. In states where no such laws exist, you can still break the law by violating more general laws against distracted driving.

There may be other legal ramifications as well.  In the event of injury or death resulting from a distracted driving crash, the driver may also be charged with other crimes, such as reckless driving and even manslaughter.  In the event of a lawsuit resulting from an accident, evidence of texting or other distracted driving violations may be used to prove recklessness and/or negligence.

Organizations Building Awareness/Assistance for Distracted Driving Practices

The Distraction.gov website has an education program that may be downloaded and presented to schools, churches and community groups to call attention to this problem.  They also invite drivers to fill out their “Take the Pledge” to drive without phones. Many states are discovering through research and practice that high-visibility enforcement of distracted driving laws reduces hand-held phone use.

Many varied organizations and companies are mounting Public Awareness campaigns.  The U.S. Department of Transportation has partnered with many groups to reach out to Americans with their message:  “One Text or Call Could Wreck It All.”

  • People Against Distracted Driving (PADD) focuses on awareness and education
  • The New Ad Council targets teens with the no texting message
  • VW and Audi instituted the “Enjoy the Ride, Don’t Text and Drive” campaign.
  • Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS) offers a toolkit to enable employers to adopt policies on distracted driving
  • ESPN reminds sports fans to stay off the phone during “On the Road to Camp” tour of 32 pro football training sites.
  • End Distracted Driving (EndDD) focuses on awareness and education
  • AT&T’s expanded the It Can Wait® campaign broadening it to include other social media distractions on Smartphones
  • National Safety Council increases awareness with the “Take Back Your Drive” campaign and observes April as Distracted Driving Awareness Month

Stop Texting and Driving

Strategies and Apps to Help You Avoid Distracted Driving

The AAA provides a top ten list of strategies to avoid distracted driving when behind the wheel.
These include:

  1. Take care of other activities before or after you get behind the wheel, not while driving.
  2. If another activity comes up that demands your attention while driving, pull off and park in a safe place before attempting to do it. Turn off the phone and power down other devices before driving to avoid temptation.  Even voice activated systems may take longer than you expect.
  3. Enlist your passengers’ aid in maintaining driving focus.
  4. Never use texting, tweeting or email functions when driving.
  5. Secure your children or pets before driving. If they need you, pull off the road and park first.
  6. If you have to eat on the road, avoid messy foods and ones that spill to avoid distractions.
  7. Dress and groom at home.
  8. Adjust car mechanics such as seat and climate controls before driving.
  9. Store your belongings so they don’t roll around and tempt you to reach for them.
  10. Fully focus on your driving at all times, actively scanning your surroundings and paying attention to pedestrians.

There are also helpful apps that can assist you in this battle.  These include:

  • AT&T’s DriveMode®: It silences your message alerts.  It also auto-replies to let callers know you are driving and can’t respond.
  • Sprint’s Drive First: It disables the phone when driving is detected, locking the screen and redirecting your calls to your voice mail.  It still allows access to GPS and music apps.
  • FleetSafer Mobile by Aegis Mobility: It is specifically designed for commercial fleets with Blackberry, Window and Android mobile devices.  It locks and sends auto-reply messages when driving.
  • Cellcontrol: This program disables both cell phone and other mobile devices such as tablets and is compatible with over a thousand devices.
  • Kyrus Mobile: This application disables texting and other applications on mobile devices and works with Android, Blackberry, Apple iOS and Java or BREW.
  • Lifesaver: Automatically locks the phone while driving
  • Drive Beehive: The official safe driving app of People Against Distracted Driving (PADD) is a peer to peer incentive based network where users earn rewards for safe driving
  • OneTap: Automatically detects when you’re driving and silences alerts and notifications. It can also notify incoming callers and texters that you’re driving (Android version only). This is available in Android and IOS.
  • Wonder: Let’s others know in real-time if you’re driving so they avoid texting you until you stop driving. Available for Android and IOS.

Distracted driving is a growing problem on our roads and highways.  It results in thousands of injuries and deaths each year.  By broadening our own and other people’s awareness of the problem, its causes and its solutions, we contribute to making driving a safer experience for all.