Philbrick: Put the phone away and stop distracted driving in Silicon Valley
Photo credit: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire URN:41569789 (Press Association via AP Images)

You are safely driving along when that incoming text notification demands your immediate attention. There doesn’t seem to be anything in the way ahead — why not take a quick look? It might be something important from work or maybe it’s a family member — surely something worth the quick diversion.

This thought process is, unfortunately, all too common — leading many drivers to engage in unsafe behavior while operating their vehicle. In fact, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated that at any one time during the day, 5.3% of all drivers on the road were using their phones. And the consequences of that behavior speak for themselves –texting drivers are 23 times more likely to be involved in an accident. Why? Because a mere 2-second lapse in focus doubles the likelihood of being involved in a motor vehicle collision.

But it’s not just cellphones. Distracted driving, according to the NHTSA, comes in three forms: visual, taking eyes off of the road; manual, relinquishing control of the steering wheel; and cognitive, mentally ignoring the task at hand. These have a wide range of potential causes, including other occupants (think crying infant), eating or drinking (think driving while intoxicated), smoking (think vaping), adjustments to car controls (think audio and climate), outside events (think rubbernecking), or daydreaming (think of that next vacation). Even an unrestrained pet in the vehicle can cause a life threatening distraction.

What, then, can be done? The answer is simple and that is to ignore all distractions and focus solely on the road before you, the cars around you, and on traveling safely from point A to point B. But life happens, right? Combine that with the fact that people are historically poor at judging their own reaction time and ability to safely multitask and you have a potentially fatal situation at hand.

And the statistics on distracted driving paint a grim picture. At least 1.6 million crashes a year occur because of distracted driving, with 3,166 people dying in 2017 alone. Said another way, 1/10 of all fatal crashes result from driver distraction with 9 people losing their lives and another 1,000 being injured every single day in our nation. And these statistics probably understate the issue; as distracted driving is pervasively underreported throughout the nation.

But what do we do right here, right now?

Many have emphasized the need for better education on the issue. Education is a central tenet of the NHTSA’s approach, and behavior change programs as well as public awareness campaigns are common prevention tools suggested both by scholars and officials. But there’s a limit to what education can do.

As such, stronger laws have been proposed by a number of stakeholders, and are touted by government agencies as effective incentives. And they are (surprisingly) popular with the general public with a recent survey documenting that the majority of drivers support a total ban on cellphone use while driving. And, of great importance, 82% of respondents said they would change their behavior if the law required them to do so. For comparison, and for those who recall the introduction of seat belts, it took a law to increase user acceptance and now, for most, buckling up is second nature.

Certainly there are technological innovations that aim to remove driver error and distraction from the equation, including autonomous driving features, such as lane-departure warnings, lane-keeping assist, forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking.

But, ultimately, these features are nowhere near enough to significantly reduce the danger of distracted driving at present. Autonomous vehicles might solve the issue in the future, with some estimates indicating that they have the potential to reduce vehicle collisions, caused by human error, by up to 94%. But that is off in the future.

In the meantime, there are a slew of mobile applications that stop drivers from using their phones while at the wheel. A number of them block notifications while driving while others read notifications aloud, allowing hands-free updates while on the road. But for these to be effective, the driver must opt to use them.

With increased public awareness, ever-improving technologies and unflinching enforcement on the issue, there’s hope that distracted driving can be reduced (not eliminated). Humans have free will and it is the individual driver who ultimately decides how to behave behind the wheel.

When that next notification demands your attention — ignore it; your very life could depend on it.

San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues. Her columns appear every first Thursday of the month.

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