Driving with distractions

Photo by Jhaymesisviphotography.

Photo by Jhaymesisviphotography.

It’s likely we all know at least one person who didn’t make it through high school. For me, it was my classmate Scott Safer in Vermont in the late ’70s. He was a passenger in a car whose friend was changing a cassette tape while driving on an exit ramp. The car flipped over, and Scott didn’t survive. He was 16.

Avoidable fatalities caused by distracted teen driving cause thousands of hearts to break every year. Parents, family and friends find themselves devastated by the too-brief life senselessly snuffed out. It often seems to happen around now, prom time, just before graduation, a time that should mean new beginnings and new adventures for high-school kids.

Distractions that cause accidents, from drink or drugs to interactions with too many friends in the car, are many. The risk factor is exacerbated by the sense of invincibility that many young people have and compounded by their inexperience at driving.

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But the deadliest factor, in 2013, is the telephone. Whether used for talking, surfing, reading or sending texts, it contributes to the vast majority of car accidents that claim lives. Text messaging is the worst culprit, creating a crash risk that is 23 times worse than normal driving, comparable to driving after four drinks or with a blood alcohol level of 0.8 percent, the legal limit. Texting while driving is responsible for eleven teen deaths every day in this country, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Even hands-free phones create a cognitive distraction from what the driver sees, hears and takes in about the conditions around him or her.

Statistics from 2011 say that 23 percent of crashes involved phones, and 21 percent of fatal ones involving teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19, were the result of cell phone usage. This percentage is growing as much as four percent every year. Eighty-two percent of 16- and-17-year-olds now have their own phone, 54 to 56 percent admit to talking on the phone while driving and 13 to 34 percent to texting.

The Centers for Disease Control report that nearly half of all U.S. high school students aged 16 years or older text or e-mail while driving. Students who text while driving are nearly twice as likely to ride with a driver who has been drinking and five times as likely to drink and drive themselves.

So far, the research indicates that the cognitive distraction of having a hands-free phone conversation causes drivers to miss the important visual and audio cues that would ordinarily help avoid a crash. Safe driving requires optimum visual, manual and cognitive attention from the driver. Eating, grooming, looking at a map or adjusting the radio take the driver’s eyes from the road or a hand from the wheel momentarily, reducing the effective attention on the task at hand. Using a cell phone diminishes all three: the eyes leave the road, a hand leaves the wheel, and the driver is thinking about something besides the road.

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