What does your “Smartphone” and a shot of booze have in common?

Lots, actually.  But aside from their inherently addictive qualities, one thing has become certain over the past decade or so: Smartphones are becoming just as dangerous, if not more so, than drunk driving when it comes to highway safety.

I once read an article stating that in the time it takes to look down and text the words “I love you” while driving 55 mph, you will travel the length of a football field.  As one who commutes and travels for work a great deal, I constantly notice other drivers on Highway 421 traveling 60, 70 mph or faster while looking at their phone.  To be honest, I’m guilty of it myself from time to time.  I think we’re all tempted to look away and send a quick text, or check the weather, or a score, when no other vehicles appear to be nearby.  It feels harmless enough.

However… if you are like me, you’ve probably also had that moment while texting when you’ve drifted across the center line or over the white line toward the edge of the highway.  Or maybe you’ve hit those bumper strips which are designed to “snap you back to attention” when you doze, or text, or otherwise stop paying attention to the road.  Even worse, maybe you’ve been roused from writing a text by the sound of another driver’s horn as you drift over into their lane?  Simply stated… in America we do not recognize distracted driving to be a hazard of the same level as drunk driving.  But we should.

Nowadays, only a very small percentage of people take the risk of drinking and driving.  In America, we all know that drinking and driving is a major taboo and the repercussions are often very severe.  In North Carolina, you can very likely find yourself off the road altogether, and potentially behind bars, if you drink and drive.  You may also have to suffer the social embarrassment of not being able to drive, or having to use a moped or public transportation to get around.  There is a definite stigma associated with drunk driving.

But texting and driving, on the other hand, seems to be something that most everyone does from time to time.  Little, if any, significant stigma is associated with it, other than perhaps an unhappy look from the driver beside you.  In North Carolina, it is illegal to text and drive, but it is considered to be an infraction punishable by a small fine of $100 and the costs of court.  No driver’s license or insurance points are assessed for a violation.  Moreover, a violation of this law is not negligence or contributory negligence per se.  Yes, there is public awareness about distracted driving, but people don’t go to jail for it.  There is no MADD organization fighting against it like there is for drunk driving.  So people text and drive.  It seems to be worth the risk.

In 2009 Car and Driver magazine decided to put this question to the test.  How long does it take for a driver to hit the brakes when he is (a) sober and attentive, (b) legally drunk, (c) reading an e-mail, and (d) sending a text message?  The results:

  • Unimpaired: .54 seconds to brake
  • Legally drunk: add 4 feet
  • Reading e-mail: add 36 feet
  • Sending a text: add 70 feet

That’s right.  A drunk driver is significantly more likely to see you and hit the brakes than someone looking down and sending a text.  Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising.  A drunk driver, although impaired, is still looking at the road and, while his reaction time is reduced, he does ultimately react.  Someone who is completely looking away and not paying attention to the road at all (virtually driving blindfolded) is of course going to be that much slower to react (if at all) when confronted with danger.

Also, not so unexpectedly, distracted driving accidents and deaths have been on the rise for over a decade, while at the same time drunk driving accidents and fatalities have been on the decline.  From a 2014 Huffington Post article:

“Between 2005 and 2012, the number of drunk driving fatalities per person decreased 28%.  In the same time period, the percentage of people observed “visibly manipulating” their phones while driving increased a staggering 650%. The number of fatalities caused by distracted driving increased 28% between 2005 and 2008 alone. In 2012, 3,328 Americans died in crashes involving a distracted driver, while 10,322 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes.”

As a runner and cyclist for many years, my biggest fear while out on the road used to be dogs.  Most runners have either personally experienced, or have a friend who has experienced a nasty dog bite at some point.  That’s changed in the last decade.  Now my biggest fear is undoubtedly the inattentive driver.  Before I run across an intersection where a car is waiting, and certainly as I’m riding my bike and seeing a car approaching from a side street, I look at the driver and try to see the “white of their eyes” before a proceed.  To do otherwise is taking a risk.  Too many people simply don’t pay attention to the road these days because of screens.

So… what does this mean and what can we as citizens do to correct this problem?

I think what all of this clearly means is that we as citizens, and the State of North Carolina, take distracted driving way too lightly.  Obviously when distracted driving has become an epidemic proportional to drunk driving, then steps needs to be taken to give it greater attention.

We can start by being personally aware of the dangers of distracted driving and choose not to text when our cars are moving.  I realize that this can be inconvenient, especially for someone who spends a great deal of their time in a car, like me.  One way to start may be to set a rule for yourself that you only text or email when the car isn’t moving.  Then, probably the worst thing that’ll happen is someone will blow their horn at you when the light changes and you don’t move.  At least you’re not traveling the length of multiple football fields at 70 mph while texting with your spouse about dinner….

Also, we can encourage our lawmakers to get tougher on distracted driving.  To me, it is inexplicable that North Carolina does not consider distracted driving a “moving violation” that carries license and insurance points.  I mean, what’s more dangerous – an attentive driver going 70 in a 55 mph zone on the highway, or an inattentive person driving “blindfolded” for half a mile while writing a text or email?  It seems pretty obvious, but the first one carries a hefty fine and potential points, and second one is punished by a virtual slap on the wrist.  I’m not arguing that distracted drivers should automatically lose their license or go to jail, but it is a preventable problem if you simply choose to wait until safer (non-moving) moment to send out that text.  If you do have an urgent need to send a text right away, then why not just pull off the highway and send it instead of placing other lives at risk?

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