Dear Mr. Dad: This may sound dramatic, but I’m hoping you can help save my mom’s life. She’s constantly on her phone, talking or texting, while she’s driving. I’m only 13 and I’ve tried telling her to stop but she says she has it under control and says I should be quiet. She’s cut out some of your columns and stuck them on our refrigerator, so I know she respects your opinion. I can’t get through to her. Will you help?
A: Unfortunately, your mom is far from alone in using her phone while she’s behind the wheel. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that at any given moment, nine percent of all drivers are either on a call or texting. That may not sound like much, until you consider that distracted driving – which most often involves a cellphone – causes nearly 1.3 million car crashes, killing close to 5,000 Americans and injuring more than 400,000 every year. That makes distracted driving nearly as dangerous as alcohol and speeding.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are three types of distraction: visual (taking your eyes off the road), manual (taking your hands off the wheel), and cognitive (taking your mind off your driving). Let’s start with texting since it involves all three.
Although we tend to think of texting as a teen thing, 41 percent of teens say they’ve seen a parent read or send a text or email, according to a recent study by AAA. In that same study, 36.1 percent of drivers admit that they’ve read a text or email within the past 30 days, and 27.1 percent say they typed one (I’d double those figures to account for the liars). What’s worse, 84.4 percent of drivers believe that texting or emailing while driving is “completely unacceptable.” And they’re right. According to the NHTSA, someone who’s texting while driving is 23 times more likely to crash than someone who’s not.
Because texting and driving is clearly a danger, 46 states have outlawed it. But as strange as it sounds, texting behind the wheel is nowhere near as big a problem as making calls while driving (although if you think about it, it makes sense: Phone calls take a lot longer than texts). So of those 1.3 million crashes, only 160,000 involve texting, while 1.1 million involve talking on the phone.
Fourteen states have outlawed talking on handheld devices while driving. That gives the very false impression that hands-free calls are safer. While it’s true that they eliminate two of the risk factors (taking hands off the wheel and eyes off the road), the whole taking-your-mind-off-your- driving thing is still incredibly dangerous. In fact, hands-free devices offer no safety benefit, according to the National Safety Council. Drivers using cellphones – whether handheld or hands-free – are four times more likely than other drivers to get into a serious crash.
How’s that possible? University of Utah neuroscientist David Strayer found that drivers using cellphones (again, handheld or hands-free) experience “inattention blindness,” meaning that they’re so distracted and their reaction times are slowed down so much that they look at – but don’t actually see – half of the information in their driving environment. As a result, they miss exits, run red lights and stop signs, and when they finally do notice something, it’s often too late to brake or steer away.
I’ll talk about teen distracted driving and some excellent resources in a future column. In the meantime, if your mom needs any more convincing on the science behind all of this, buy her a copy of Matt Richtel’s book, “A Deadly Wandering,” (Harper-Collins Publishers). Hopefully she’ll live long enough to read it – and to see what a great kid she’s got.
Read Armin Brott’s blog at www.DadSoup.com and follow him on Twitter, @mrdad.
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