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Distracted Driving – A Nationwide Epidemic

Distracted driving has been the leading cause of fatal motor vehicle crashes for six consecutive years. Distracted driving is a choice with potentially fatal consequences. It only takes three seconds of averted attention to cause an accident. With the average number of miles individuals drive per year substantially rising in recent years, the increased congestion means more potential for serious car accidents. As a society, we need to better appreciate the risks posed by distracted driving and how it can be stopped.

Distracted driving is a nationwide epidemic. The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration determined that in 2016, 3,450 people were killed as a result of distracted driving. There are many factors that contribute to distracted driving including conversation, music, cellular phone use, children, eating/drinking, and multitasking. Unsurprisingly, cell phone use is the leading type of distracted driving. Studies show that 55% of teens believe they can easily manage texting while driving. Furthermore, teens who reported frequent texting were also less likely to wear a seat belt, more likely to drink and drive, or more likely to ride with a drunk driver. Another overlooked cause of distracted driving is children. Reaching back to tend to a child’s needs can be a significant distraction. On a sixteen-minute car ride with kids, the driver has their eyes off the road for approximately three minutes and twenty seconds.

When a driver is distracted, it’s not just their ability to see what is ahead that is affected. Researchers in the psychology department at the University of Utah identified five key cognitive functions that are impacted by distracted driving. They determined that when a driver is engaged in a secondary task while driving, their ability to scan, predict, identify, make a decision and execute a response is impaired. They coined the acronym SPIDER to refer to all of the functions impaired when driving while distracted.

The most effective means of preventing distracted driving is education. EndDD is an organization devoted to spreading awareness on the topic of distracted driving. According to EndDD, teens ages 18-34 and adults ages 35-44 are the top two groups who engage in distracted driving. To address these groups, the organization developed educational programs for schools and the workplace aimed at trying to change the attitudes surrounding distracted driving. It is changing attitudes by providing access to extensive knowledge on the subject and organizing a nationwide program encouraging volunteer speakers to travel to schools and workplaces to give presentations on the seriousness of distracted driving. The organization has released impactful videos and has numerous resources available online to help educate employees and students.
In April 2017, New York state implemented stricter distracted driving laws. The laws establish fines starting at $50-$150 for a first offense and rising to $50-$400 for a third offense. A young driver convicted of texting and driving will have their license suspended for 120 days on their first offense. In addition, state police periodically undertake crackdowns, like “Operation Hang Up” in April of 2018, where they aggressively enforce these laws in an attempt to deter the unsafe behavior. Given the tragic consequences of distracted driving, these laws arguably do not go far enough.

However, New York state is on the leading edge of distracted driving policy. There is no unifying federal law with respect to distracted driving. Distracted driving laws are up to each state's discretion. New York is one of only 16 states that prohibits all drivers from using hand held devices while driving. It also enforces its texting and driving laws. No states have passed a complete cell phone ban thus far. In fact, some states, such as Montana, do not have any statewide distracted driving policies despite significant research of the danger it poses. In order to ensure community safety nationwide federal distracted driving laws need to be implemented and enforced.
Distracted driving is the number one leading cause of car accidents, exceeding both speeding and drunk driving. It is also entirely preventable by changing our behavior and attitudes about the risk of driving distracted. Education programs for students and adults can help spread awareness and reduce this epidemic.