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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Another take on distraction

A decade ago, driving distraction involved ill-advised behavior like rubbernecking at roadside happenings, reading, shaving or applying makeup.  While those and many other driver “don’ts” are undoubtedly still in play, distracted driving has now become synonymous with talking, texting and fooling with distracting vehicle technology.

Though any distraction compromises driver effectiveness, cell phones have taken a leading position on the driver diversion list.  First with conversations, next with texting, then finally with “smart” phone internet browsing.  The phones may be smart, but it is dumb to use them while driving, especially if it involves sending or reading a text or dealing with an internet app.

Also, the proliferation of touch screens and other gagetry on vehicle’s center stacks has the potential of stealing drivers’ attention levels from the roadway.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, recently voiced some interesting takes on the topic, as did Automotive News writer Gabe Nelson when he reported on Rockefeller’s views.

Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce committee, is charged with making and monitoring federal laws to keep the roads safe.  Yet many still die on those roads, as Nelson put it, “…because they won’t stop looking down from the road to check messages and play with the high tech gizmos built into cars.”

Just this month, Rockefeller spoke to business executives from General Motors, Toyota, Apple, Google, AT &T and Verizon on Capital Hill, warning them to do a better job of curbing distracted driving or Congress will act.  For example, Congress, via the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration, could require mobile phone makers to render them inactive while vehicles are in motion, or order auto manufacturers to limit distracting technology in cars and trucks.

Rockefeller said, “Know me to be very unhappy, very nervous.  Not just about deaths, but about close-to-death injuries — all for the sake of outdoing each other and making more money.”  Obviously, he believes that the automobile and device manufacturers are complicit in creating products that dilute the collective attention of our motoring public.

It’s true that Americans, especially the youth, have become obsessed with electronic devices that can compromise driver safety drastically when used indiscriminately.  These young drivers have realized the importance of seat belt use and driving sober, which compliance statistics positively reflect.  They have evidently grown up sensitive to “buckle up” and “don’t drink and drive” campaigns.

Many of these young drivers, however, are willing to look down from the road to read or send text messages, and each year our roadways become populated with new, young drivers brought up on smart phones.  Since we have, as Nelson states, “A societal addiction to connectedness that is growing stronger every year,” I think we should apply a strict focus to the phenomenon and create campaigns rivaling those for seat belts and driving under influence.  Over the decades, those campaigns have changed societal behavior, significantly curtailing drunk driving and bringing seat belt use to nearly 90 percent nationally, and 98 percent in the state of Washington!

Nelson cautions, and so do I, that having lawmakers make laws is not the way to deal with distracted driving.  He feels that while laws and regulations are Washington’s “hammer,” distracted driving is not a “nail.”

The lure of engaging in distracting activity while at the wheel is a societal behavior that seems to be worsening.  Making laws may make certain people feel better, but it won’t stop the behavior.  After all, it is illegal in many states to talk or text without a hands-free device, but drivers are still doing it.

Creating new laws is easy — changing human habits is not.  Targeting big business may be a worthwhile element of an effort to reduce distracted driving, but a multi-faceted campaign, including education and enforcement, is a must for changing societal norms.

The only way to solve the problem is one driver at a time.  If each one of us endeavored to resist the appeal of engaging in distracting activity while driving, the problem would end.  Right now, at the very least, we should vow to stop and safely park our vehicles before using our cell phones for any purpose.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at