Death by Distraction

In 2006, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that driver inattention and distraction is a factor in 80% of automobile accidents and research continues to prove that attempts at multitasking while driving are dangerous.

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Just as in the office, drivers apparently believe that they are capable of doing more than one thing at a time and that accidents caused by driver inattention must happen to someone else.

While deaths attributed to distracted driving fell by 6% in 2009 from the previous year (as part of an overall decline in traffic fatalities), distracted driving-relating crashes claimed 5,474 lives and injured 448,000 people in the United States in 2009, according to a report released by the U.S. Transportation Department in September 2010.  16% of fatal crashes in 2008 and 2009 involved reports of distracted driving, up from 10% in 2005.  However,the overall number of traffic accidents in the U.S. declined in 2009.

16% of all drivers younger than 20 (the age group with the highest proportion of distracted drivers) involved in fatal crashes were reported to have been distracted while driving.  Drivers between 30 and 39 were most likely to be involved in a fatal crash while distracted by a mobile phone, however.

“We are not talking about numbers, but about lives being broken and people being killed in crashes that were 100 percent preventable,” Ray LaHood, the Secretary of transportation, posted in his blog.  In a formal statement accompanying the report he stated “These numbers show that distracted driving remains an epidemic in America, and they are just the tip of the iceberg,”

“We’re hooked on our devices and we can’t put them down, even when it means jeopardizing our own safety and the safety of others,” LaHood added in his blog.  “And we have young people texting habitually long before they learn to drive who then can’t even imagine turning off their devices when they climb behind the wheel.”

“You see it every day: Drivers swerving in their lanes, stopping at green lights, running red ones or narrowly missing a pedestrian because they have their eyes and minds on their phones, not on the road,” wrote LaHood in an OpEd piece in the Orlando Sentinel.  “Yet people consistently assume that they can drive and text or talk at the same time.  The results are preventable accidents.”

Sometimes a person’s inattentiveness can have fatal results outside of a vehicle.  In the last few years, multiple lives have been lost at pools where the lifeguard on duty was texting instead of watching the pool.  Lifeguards are trained to scan their areas in ten-second cycles because a swimmer can drown in a mere 20 seconds.

According to Paul Atchley, associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, teenagers need to be texting to feel connected.  Despite knowing texting and driving is unsafe, they persist in the behavior.  And when they do, it changes how safe they perceive road conditions to be.  “Some of our latest work shows that when younger drivers choose to text, they perceive the driving conditions to be safer than they actually are.  In our research, drivers who initiate a text think freeway driving is equal to driving on a calm street, while drivers simply reading a text think freeway driving is attentionally demanding, such as driving in intense weather conditions.  Choosing to send a text changes one’s attitudes about the safety of the behavior and it may be one reason the behavior is so difficult to change.”

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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