Distracted Driving Needs a Slogan- MADD II

We don’t get in cars with drunk drivers, but why do we persist in driving with someone talking on a cell phone?

April was ‘Distracted Driving Month’ and most drivers probably encountered at least one public service ad or safety warning. While the advertising campaign is thirty days long, the problem persists throughout the year. Over a twelve month period, there will be nearly 3,500  traffic deaths, and 400,000 traffic injuries associated with distracted driving per the National Highway Traffic  Safety Administration.

The real accident rate, the underlying numbers, are much larger. It is difficult for police officers at a traffic scene to code for distraction. Unlike wearing a seatbelt or testing for alcohol use, cell phone distraction is not obvious. There is no simple way to know whether a cell phone was involved in a crash and it is difficult to obtain telco calling records. Drivers often forget, or are unwilling to talk about their phone use, and witnesses are not a good source of information.

Whatever the coding, traffic deaths are the number one public health issue and take a larger toll than we realize. One sobering statistic comes from Israel, which is positioning itself as a leader in autonomous cars: since 1948, 35,000 people have died on Israel’s roads compared with 25,000 in war and terror attacks.

While cars are getting safer,  accidents due to distracted driving are on the increase. Yet the outcry about distracted driving seems to be fading (except in April). Most people would think twice about getting in a car with someone who has been drinking, yet someone using a cell phone is more at risk. A widely quoted study in Human Factors cited that a driver talking on a cell phone is more impaired that someone with a blood alcohol level exceeding 0.08.

At least three methods have been used to control distracted driving, none of them fully successful. The first method, which might be called a countermeasure, works directly on the source, the phone. The app is able to control and halt incoming calls and text messages. The apps also turn off notifications and alerts that could distract a driver or tempt to use their phone. Most of these  apps are free, but have found few followers. Even parents of teenagers, who could track their teenager’s cell phone use in real time, seem resistant to the counter-measure.  When Auto-Shut Down apps were recommended by the former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in 2010, critics countered that the police use text when they drive, and the apps represented an over-reach of federal government.

A second approach has been public awareness campaigns, like the one in April from the National Safety Council. There is an advantage here as people can be reached where the distraction is occurring; namely in their cars. Billboards and radio seem to be an underutilized medium. Distracted driving has not received resources that have gone into publicizing similar, year-long,  in-vehicle campaigns like “Buckle Up for Safety” and “Don’t Drive and Drive”. The NHTSA has responded with the U word: “U Drive, U Text, U Pay.”

A third approach has been legislation. The key problem is that cell phone bans are hard to enforce and traffic officers seldom pull over offenders. No state outlaws all cell phone use for drivers, despite a recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board to ban texting while driving, and the placing of hands-free calls. 38 states ban all cell phone use by new drivers, and 14 states prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving. That legislation is perhaps drafted by public servants who observe their own behavior in cars, and anticipate that if it safe for them, it is safe for others.

One reason legislation lags is because people intuitively like to use their phones in cars, and they want to believe that hands free technology is safe. The counter argument, from research in cognitive science, is that cell phone conversations are detrimental to driving. Cell phone conversations keep drivers from paying full attention to the road and it also reduces their visual field. After following 100 vehicles over one year with specially equipment, researchers at the Virginia Tech Transport Institute  found that nearly eighty percent of crashes and sixty-five percent of near-crashes involved driver inattention up to three seconds before the event. Their in-car cameras recorded the source of the distraction, and, of course, it was frequently the cell phone.

There is currently a push to install hands-free phones that would eliminate the need to reach for a phone, or text while holding the steering wheel. While these intuitively seem to help, they do not reduce the cognitive burden for drivers. Vehicle dashboards with speech-recognition and  touch-screen systems distract drivers, in new and unknown ways.  It could be argued that over time, these systems will become more intuitive and drivers will get more fluent using them. In a previous blog, we compared this to the early days of car radio. An equilibrium may be reached but until then, there will be several generations of dashboard technology. Until that point, dashboard tech may cause teeth gnashing and accidents, as a humorous story in the Wall St. Journal recently noted.

Going forward, perhaps “Distracted Driving Month” will evolve into something with more staying power. “Mothers Against Drunk Driving”  might someday expand their mission to reflect the current problem, and they would not even have  to change their acronym (MADD). Meanwhile, the road to driverless cars will be filled with more distraction as drivers try to manage the intermediate dashboards.  When a fatal accident occurred in a self-driving Tesla vehicle last year, the driver was said to be in the ultimate state of distraction- watching a movie.