Adventures in Distracted Driving

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Distracted drivers kill. Not just themselves, unfortunately, but innocent others: conscious drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians, passengers. In 2012, for example, 3,328 people were killed in distracted driving crashes.

So why, some of us wonder, are today’s cars designed to distract? Touch screens for multiple uses, gadgets for audible texting, voice-activated music or phone calls, GPS instructions that can be conflicted or confusing. Aids and upgrades? Or distractions?

Even with two hands on the wheel – tough, when you’re working with a touch screen – it is not possible to have any of the above in use without being distracted from the essential goal of driving: getting from Point A to Point B without endangering yourself or others. That goal once summed up the business of driving.

But cars and driving have changed in recent years. Cars are sold on the strength of how they make you feel – free, macho, superior. Driving, at least in the ads, is not a matter of getting from Point A to Point B, but “an experience.” An enhancement of self, time and energy.

My friend Mac spends a good bit of time and energy on the 1962 Volvo which is the family transportation, not always to the delight of his wife. But a functioning car is a functioning car. My own automotive experience has evolved from a 1977 Volvo stick shift to a 2000 S40, a rather spiffy little vehicle with sun roof and great radio sound – but no computer. It is increasingly difficult to find a car as uncomplicated as a 2000 Volvo S40.

Recently I was a passenger in a new car with one of the now-standard dashboard computer screens. Traveling 75 mph on a well-lit highway we were passing an accident of some sort and a police car with red and blue lights flashing when the computer screen blinked, a beep sounded and a friendly voice from somewhere said, “Hi, I just wanted to check with you about the wine.” Happily, the driver understood the blink, knew the voice, and had earlier set the interior phone to speaker since she wasn’t using ear plugs. She was immediately able to switch from the conversation we’d been having to a conversation about buying wine for the dinner party ahead that evening – while maintaining speed and staying in the same lane. The driver is also a highly skilled multi-tasker who hadn’t had any wine at all yet.

But after the phone conversation ended (and my heartbeat had gone back to normal) the driver told me she hadn’t noticed the police car.

Suppose the flashing police light had been a warning of hazard ahead? Suppose another driver on another, more troubling, phone call had done something unexpected in another lane? However skilled at both driving and multi-tasking, could my driver have had enough remaining undistracted resources to keep driving safely?

Given my choices, I would take sharing the road with Mac and his ’62 Volvo over all these roads filled with cars equipped with audible texting devices, voice-activated music systems and dashboard computer screens.

Unfortunately, we no longer have that choice.

 

 

OMG: Texting drivers crash, maim, kill — to the tune of 1.6 million annual accidents

Nearly 28% of crashes, some 1.6 million per year according to the National Safety Council, can be attributed to drivers who are talking on cell phones or texting. Crossing the intersection of Clement Street and Arguello Blvd in San Francisco an hour or so ago I almost made it 1.6 million plus one: driver on phone, self on foot, alert driver blasted horn at talking driver with whom I thought I’d made eye contact (apparently not) or this space would’ve been toast. Are we a nation of nuts, or what?

The issue has gotten the attention of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and the Orthopaedic Trauma Association, folks who see the reality of these abstract statistics every day. The two groups have joined forces to launch a print and PSA campaign designed to staunch the wound.

The campaign features a bloody, shattered windshield accompanied by the words:  OMG! Get the message. Texting while driving is a deadly distraction.

It’s definitely time. According to the AAOS release, “general statistics on distracted driving are startling:

  • 80 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of near crashes involve some type of distraction. (Source: Virginia Tech 100-car study for NHTSA)
  • Nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver, and more than half a million were injured. (NHTSA)
  • The worst offenders are the youngest and least-experienced drivers: men and women under 20 years of age. (NHTSA)
  • Drivers who use hand-held devices are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. (Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)

Wall Street Journal “Driver’s Seat” blogger Jonathan Welsh posted a commentary somewhat courageously including himself in the Bad Guy category in discussing the billboard camapaign:

So, when did you stop texting behind the wheel? It’s a loaded question, but appropriate for many if not most of us. I don’t think I know anyone with a mobile phone and a driver’s license who doesn’t tap out the occasional message while driving.

In the era of multitasking and rapid communication, driving and texting are a tempting combination. Too bad it’s so dangerous.

“To say this habit can be deadly is the truth. It is an outcome we unfortunately see every day,” said AAOS president John J. Callaghan. “The problem with the use of 24/7 communications devices is that every driver believes he or she is immune to slip ups, but isn’t.”

Of course many people are so immersed in typing or reading their handheld screens that they might miss the billboards as they drive past. We have all seen — or even performed — outrageous driving maneuvers after distractions caused us to stray from our lane, miss an exit or nearly run a red light. I find that once I get over the initial anger I always feel at least a touch of empathy.

This space feels no empathy at all. It’s easy to be righteous when you never got into the phoning/texting/driving habit, and easy not to have done so if you were grew up in the dark ages before cell phones were invented.

Still, staying alive is good. I hope the lady driving the beige SUV through the intersection of Clement and Arguello gets the message before it’s too late.

Texting While Driving: Medical Groups Speak Out – Driver’s Seat – WSJ.

Girl drivers more aggressive than boys – and texting, loud music now the norm

My 19-year-old granddaughter, who totaled her car a few months ago, swears she wasn’t texting at the time. Well… maybe the music was playing a little loud. She was unhurt, didn’t hit anyone else or damage anything other than her late lamented car, so there are a lot of blessings to count. But does she text occasionally? “Everybody does.” And in general, besides the decibel level, and the phone which is an extension of her left hand, a shrinking violet she is not. I hasten to say this is a young woman I greatly love and admire; she may also be typical of today’s teenage girl drivers.

Some big auto insurers are raising the rates they charge to cover teenage girls, reflecting the crumbling of conventional wisdom that young women are more responsible behind the wheel.

In a survey of teenage drivers, Allstate Insurance Co. found that 48% of girls said they are likely to drive 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. By comparison, 36% of the boys admitted to speeding. Of the girls, 16% characterized their own driving as aggressive, up from 9% in 2005. And just over half of the girls said they are likely to drive while talking on a phone or texting, compared to 38% of the boys.

The results were “a surprise to many people,” says Meghann Dowd of the Allstate Foundation, an independent charitable organization funded by Allstate which sponsored the survey.

While teens fessed up about their own bad behavior, they also said their friends drive even worse. The study found that 65% of the respondents, male and female, said they are confident in their own driving skills, but 77% said they had felt unsafe when another teen was driving. Only 23% of teens agree that most teens are good drivers. This suggests teens recognize in their friends the dubious and dangerous behavior they won’t admit to indulging in themselves.

A few interesting findings of the new survey:

16% of girls describe their driving as aggressive, up from 9% in 2005.

84% of girls are likely to adjust music selection or volume while driving, versus only 69% of boys.

82% of teens report using cell phones while driving.

23%of teens admit they have felt unsafe with another teen’s driving.

23% of teens agree that most teens are good drivers.

More teens (22%) consider parents in the car more distracting than having their friends in the car (14%).

OK, geezer drivers (this one is still working on the DriveSharp program we all hope is building neurons in my brain and helping me expand my useful field of view) are an admitted hazard on the road. But this new data about our grandchildren isn’t terribly encouraging either. It’s a scary road out there.

Girls Say They Speed, Drive Aggressively More than Boys – WSJ.com.

Feds target texting drivers

Distracted drivers are on a trajectory to top drunk drivers in the major U.S. Stupid Road Hazard category, and may turn out to be even harder to combat. But efforts, at least, are being made.

The Department of Transportation on Thursday stepped up its campaign against distracted driving, announcing its first pilot program to study whether increased law enforcement would reduce distracted driving in two East Coast cities.

“Law enforcement will be out on the roads in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., with one simple message,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “If a driver is caught with a cellphone in one hand, they’ll end up with a ticket in the other.”

The $600,000 program, modeled on previous safe-driving programs to curb drunk driving and improve seat belt usage, also involves a paid advertising campaign aimed at men and women up to age 49.

The campaign using radio, TV and print ads began April 1 and will continue until April 16 in the Hartford and Syracuse metropolitan areas.

The first wave of high-visibility enforcement began Thursday and will last nine days in Syracuse; in Hartford it will begin Saturday and run through April 16. Subsequent enforcement waves in both cities will take place throughout the year.

As a California driver, and frequent pedestrian, I can certify that vast numbers of drivers are still more concerned with talking or texting than with the threat of a ticket; whether or not enforcement and large fines can wrench folks away from the addiction to constant communication remains to be seen.

Connecticut and New York are among only eight U.S. states and territories, including California, to ban the use of all hand-held devices, including cellphones, while driving.

Twenty states and territories, including California, as well as Washington, D.C., have a ban on texting while driving, while six states have laws that prohibit local jurisdictions from enacting restrictions, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The federal government also introduced new regulations in January that would subject truck and bus drivers who text while driving commercial vehicles to civil or criminal penalties of up to $2,750.

The Transportation Department said results from the pilot study would serve as a model nationwide for employing high-visibility enforcement, education and outreach to reduce distracted-driving behaviors.

In 2008, 5,870 people were killed and an estimated 515,000 people were injured in police-reported crashes in which at least one form of driver distraction was reported, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

On behalf of those half-million victims, and the many of us who fear becoming a similar statistic just because somebody can’t hang up and drive, this space hereby sides with the Department of Transportation on this one.

Law enforcement keeping an eye out for distracted drivers – chicagotribune.com.

Walking while cellphoning can be hazardous to your health

Having raged and ranted about phoning/texting drivers and pedestrian-oblivious bikers, this space would now like to come to the defense of cellphoning walkers. Not, you understand, multi-tasking/app-studying cellphoning walkers, but talking walkers. Noting the attention that has recently focused on the hazards of distracted drivers, New York Times writer Matt Richtel reports on the new hazard:

But there is another growing problem caused by lower-stakes multitasking — distracted walking — which combines a pedestrian, an electronic device and an unseen crack in the sidewalk, the pole of a stop sign, a toy left on the living room floor or a parked (or sometimes moving) car.

The era of the mobile gadget is making mobility that much more perilous, particularly on crowded streets and in downtown areas where multiple multitaskers veer and swerve and walk to the beat of their own devices.

Most times, the mishaps for a distracted walker are minor, like the lightly dinged head and broken fingernail, a jammed digit or a sprained ankle, and, the befallen say, a nasty case of hurt pride. Of course, the injuries can sometimes be serious — and they are on the rise.

Slightly more than 1,000 pedestrians visited emergency rooms in 2008 because they got distracted and tripped, fell or ran into something while using a cellphone to talk or text. That was twice the number from 2007, which had nearly doubled from 2006, according to a study conducted by Ohio State University, which says it is the first to estimate such accidents.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Jack L. Nasar, a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State, noting that the number of mishaps is probably much higher considering that most of the injuries are not severe enough to require a hospital visit. What is more, he said, texting is rising sharply and devices like the iPhone have thousands of new, engaging applications to preoccupy phone users.

There is the problem, it’s the apps. It is a solvable problem. Just as it is possible, without inviting death and destruction, to talk to a (non-distracting) passenger while driving a car, it is entirely possible to talk on a cellphone while walking. Many who have managed to do so without winding up in emergency rooms have the solution: don’t be accessing travel agencies and restaurant menus, just talk. Furthermore, do not give your cellphone number to anybody but your children and a few very good friends. They do not create angst while you are walking/talking, and will also understand that you turn the thing off when you get home. Anybody else can darn well call the land line and leave a message. The fact that addiction to electronic wizardry and perpetually multi-tasking with it is a fairly recent phenomenon probably explains another interesting discovery:

Mr. Nasar supervised the statistical analysis, which was done by Derek Troyer, one of his graduate students. He looked at records of emergency room visits compiled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Examples of such (hospital) visits include a 16-year-old boy who walked into a telephone pole while texting and suffered a concussion; a 28-year-old man who tripped and fractured a finger on the hand gripping his cellphone; and a 68-year-old man who fell off the porch while talking on a cellphone, spraining a thumb and an ankle and causing dizziness.

Young people injured themselves more often. About half the visits Mr. Troyer studied were by people under 30, and a quarter were 16 to 20 years old. But more than a quarter of those injured were 41 to 60 years old.

Over 60? Except for the unfortunate gentleman strolling off his porch, we don’t event merit inclusion in the data. This may add up to one benefit of being too old to deal with the technological wonders of cellphone apps, and tending to use the cellphone as a phone. The Times article, highly recommended reading for all ages, is full of interesting factoids and neurological rationale. But much still boils down to the old can’t-walk-and-chew-gum adage.

“Walking and chewing are repetitive, well-practiced tasks that become automatic,” Dr. Gazzaley (Adam Gazzaley, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco) said. “They don’t compete for resources like texting and walking.”

Further, he said, the cellphone gives people a constant opportunity to pursue goals that feel more important than walking down the street.

“An animal would never walk into a pole,” he said, noting survival instincts would trump other priorities.

There could be a message here. Perhaps it is that the goal, or at least the top priority, of walking down the street should be to get to your destination in one piece. If you skip the apps and keep your eyes open for texting drivers at cross streets, it is entirely possible for someone of any age to accomplish this task — while talking on the cellphone.

Driven to Distraction – Pedestrians, Too, Are Distracted by Cellphones – Series – NYTimes.com.

The perils of parenting… and iPods… and texting while driving…

My granddaughter’s birthday is today. She’s 19. A gifted art student, a remarkably grounded, neat kid. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that this afternoon she totaled her car.

The further good news is that she’s okay, and she didn’t hurt anyone else. But it was her fault. I understand the music was playing customarily loud; I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if she had been texting a friend.

The really bad news is that I don’t imagine either of the above behaviors will change.

In 2008, the latest year for which a lot of data has been collected and digested, some 3,500 teens between the ages of 15 and 19 died in car wrecks. About 10 times that many wound up in emergency rooms, but survived. The 15 to 24 age group accounts for 14% of the population, but it accounted for 30% of the costs of motor vehicle injuries ($19 billion) among males, and 28% ($7 billion) among females. Nobody knows how many of the young drivers causing those accidents were texting their friends at the time — cell phones tend to fly out the window, although many of them have survived to incriminate people who murdered other people during casual conversation. There’s a very popular YouTube video that ought to cure you; my granddaughter has seen it.

A few months ago I was driving my granddaughter to catch the BART train back to campus, fairly late one night, when I committed a minor traffic violation under the immediate gaze of a San Francisco policewoman. During the interminable length of time it took for the policewoman to sit in her car studying her computer I did a lot of beating on the steering wheel, ranting about how this would ruin our insurance, how I hadn’t had a ticket in decades, how furious I was with myself for a dumb move. Eventually the policewoman returned, congratulated me on my excellent driving record, and said, “I’m going to give you a break this time, Ms. Johns…” and my granddaughter and I exhaled.

For the next few minutes we talked about my driving record. I said at least some of it has to relate to the fact that I do not talk on the phone while driving and I do not text while driving, and I like soft music (actually, I don’t think I mentioned the music business.) Those, however, are not dots one is interested in connecting if one is 18 years old… or any age, probably, coming from a little-old-lady driver who just got off lucky.

My greatly beloved granddaughter said she often texts while driving. “Everybody does,” she said.

Jail time for texting drivers

The life you save may be your own… or possibly mine. Right now, to be honest about it, I am more interested in mine. And mine is regularly at risk from texting drivers.

Today’s front page story by Matt Richtel in the New York Times, with accompanying photo of large driver of large vehicle, small dog in his lap and intricate computer screen to the right of his steering wheel, raises more fear in me than local jihadidsts and prospective death panels. The latter are abstract &/or untrue, the former is real. And preventable. “We are supposed to pull over,” trucker Kurt Long says blithely, “but nobody does.” Richtel also quotes American Trucking Association spokesman Clayton Boyce as saying that truckers “… are not reading the screen every second.” Why is this somehow not comforting?

I concede that time is critical to drivers of large vehicles. But at some point the public good ought to prevail. Those of us over 60 are admittedly better able to remember when it was possible to live without texting (or even cell-phoning) while driving and thus better able to think it could be possible again, at least on a limited basis. We are also able to remember when it was convenient for some people to drive around very drunk and occasionally kill people, before laws were passed to limit that activity. Driving a big rig while texting may seem more important than driving blotto after a party, but the dead are just as dead. Somebody has got to get the attention of our legislators — somebody not indebted to the very powerful trucking industry lobby — so that new laws are enacted.

Walking, whenever time and public transportation permit, is my mobility of choice. On foot, I regularly notice the drivers who don’t notice me because they are too busy texting or talking on cell phones. Pedestrians learn to do this. But if you’re driving down the highway and a large vehicle is barreling toward you or near you, propelled by a minimally-attentive driver, you don’t stand a chance. And I say, send them to jail.

Beloved members of my immediate circle of family and friends have been known to text while driving. I still say, send them to jail. I’ll come visit.