Let’s face it; we are all distracted drivers some of the time. I tie my tie or floss my teeth sometimes when I’m driving to work and I’ve seen others even reading newspapers! But the explosion in cell phone use has markedly increased the frequency and consequences of distracted driving. Studies show that a driver simply talking on a cell phone has a 4-6 times risk of having a crash as the same person talking, and is at the same risk as one driving with a blood alcohol level of .08 g/dL. Texting while driving is 5 times worse; people texting when driving are 25 times as likely to crash. Studies show that while texting, drivers have their eyes off the road 4.6 of every 6 seconds! Not surprisingly national data from 5 years ago showed 2000 fatalities annually associated with texting, 16% of the total auto crash deaths. But since many more people use cell phones than text, more die from simply using their cell phones. Hands-free cell phones may not reduce the risks much.
I’ve found myself sliding toward the edge of the road and hitting the rumble strip a few times even when I’m using a hands-free phone and able to dial numbers by voice. I bet many of you have too, right? But most drivers using cell phones don’t have the luxury of such equipment. The risk is made worse when cell phone use is added on top of other impairments, like alcohol intoxication, illicit or prescription drug use, fatigue (especially from obstructive sleep apnea, usually in obese snorers), inexperience (teenagers), eating in the car, night driving and/or bad weather conditions, unfamiliar roads, kids in the back seat fighting, impaired vision, or your GPS talking to you while your cellphone rings.
So how can you protect yourself from these risks?
First, be careful! Minimize your use of cell phones and don’t text while driving at all. Insist your family follow these rules too. New drivers should not use phones at all for the first several years they drive. Use Bluetooth hands-free systems if you can afford them.
Secondly, and because precautions you take don’t reduce your risk of being hit by another texting or cell phone-using driver, support reasonable legal restrictions. 10 states prohibit hand-held phone use while driving, 32 states do so for novice drivers, and 39 ban texting for all drivers. Maine does restrict texting for teens by law. However such laws are difficult to enforce and sometimes, like seat-belt laws, can only be enforced if a driver is stopped for another violation. Phone records can serve as an enforcement tool like blood alcohol levels can for drunk driving. But it is cumbersome. In the future, technology fixes, like cars that disable phone use when in motion may be possible, but how do they distinguish the driver from a passenger?
This is a big and increasing problem that will require all drivers to consider their answer to these important questions: how will you reduce your own and your family’s risks and how can you support reasonable new legal constraints on distracted driving.
Dan Onion, MD, MPH: 293-2076, firstname.lastname@example.org
Mt. Vernon Health Officer