We Americans love our gadgets, especially our cell phones. We also love our cars, and the combination of these has proven over the last several years to be very dangerous.
By now we've all seen the PSA's featuring survivors and pictures of the dead. Appeals to our emotions are temporarily effective, but we all tend to think that accidents won't happen to us or that our driving skills will keep us safe.
As early as 1998, studies were being done on the dangers of cell phone use while driving. Partly in response to these findings, cell phone use behind the wheel is totally outlawed or restricted in 49 countries and 39 of the states in America (as of Ocober 2012). For a list of current laws by state, click here. The most recent studies have focused on the bigger issue of "distracted driving", which includes use of a hands-free device. Many drivers believe that use of these devices is safe, but that belief is not supported by the data.
In April 2012 the National Safety Council released a publication entitled "Understanding the Distracted Brain". This paper describes the dangers posed by distracted drivers to other vehicles, pedestrians, their passengers, and themselves. Among its most alarming conclusions is that there is no significant difference between using a hands-free phone and a hand-held phone.
Impairment of a driver results from placing too many demands on the brain's cognitive resources. The brain's capacity is limited, no matter how intelligent or educated we are; it's a matter of biology, not ability. Texting or carrying on a conversation competes with driving for the same resources, and the human brain chooses which task gets priority. The studies showed that distracted drivers simply did not see critical elements that safe driving required. Ironically, the drivers who expressed more confidence in their ability to drive and talk actually performed the worst in a driving simulator. They did not realize what they were missing -- because the brain refused to see it! You can download the "Distracted Brain" white paper here.
Younger, less-experienced drivers are undoubtedly more at risk, because they tend to believe that they are invincible, they tend to rely heavily on their electronics, and they have less experience at defensive driving. Here's David Hay cautioning us and his daughter Mariana on additional considerations:
Even though several other countries have banned all "mobile phone" use while driving, American lawmakers are not even close to passing a national law. As responsible people, we should not need a law to force us to do what we know now to be best for us all. Common sense and self-preservation should compel us to stop doing an activity we know to be dangerous to ourselves and others, but, as Voltaire said, "Common sense is not so common." Don't wait for the politicians to catch up. You can sign a pledge at ItCanWait.com (sponsored by AT&T) to not text while driving -- but that's just a start. Make a conscious decision to stop all cell phone use while driving, and encourage people close to you to do the same. If we can reduce the dangers by even one-half, we will have accomplished a lot. We could prevent several thousand deaths and injuries, and that is certainly worth doing.