Distracted driving

Monday, March 7, 2011 11:54 PM

Every once in a while, an adult — usually middle aged or older — laments how much life has changed over the past few decades. Remember, he reminisces, when students got in trouble for bringing gum, not guns, to school? Gum was a distraction, it was unsanitary, and it just wasn’t allowed. People that age also remember when a humorous hallmark of lack of coordination was the inability to walk while chewing gum.

Life really has changed. This week, the United States Department of Transportation and Consumer Reports magazine released the result of a poll about teen and young-adult behavior, and gum wasn’t mentioned. The topic of concern was far more life threatening.

According to the poll, 63 percent of people under 30 — the least experienced drivers, and among those most likely to be both driving and communicating recreationally — admit to using a handheld phone while driving, and 30 percent say they’ve sent text messages behind the wheel. (For those older than 30, the respective percentages are 41 and 9.) Both of those activities are against the law in many states, so it’s probably safe to say that their prevalence is underreported.

Texting is far more distracting than chewing gum; it requires one’s eyes to leave the road and at least one hand to leave the steering wheel. Phone conversations require less physical coordination, but they do divide a driver’s attention and statistics show they present a crash risk.

Consumer reports has supplemented the poll with three disturbing statistics:

ŸCar crashes are the leading cause of teen death.

ŸTeens are involved in three times as many fatal crashes as other drivers.

ŸThe risk of collision is 23 times as high for drivers who are texting.

Just as gum and texting are unequal distractions, walking and driving pose vastly different levels of risk. While someone texting on a cell phone is certainly more likely than an alert pedestrian to walk into the path of an oncoming car, the speed at which walking accidents play out is generally much slower, and far less harm usually results. A distracted pedestrian is far more likely to hurt himself than anyone else; a driver whose eyes and hands are not on task can kill two carloads of people in an instant.

The risk may be greater in rural areas because drivers spend more time on the road. Putting off a phone call or delaying answering a text until one reaches a destination 5 minutes away isn’t overly challenging, but the greater the distance and time, the more likely a driver is to multitask.

No easy solutions have been suggested. One insurance company has suggested an electronic block on communications from a moving vehicle, but that would prevent passengers from using their phones and would also block emergency communications. Peer pressure and teens’ sense of immortality tend to overrule education and parental restrictions. Laws have not been a significant deterrent, especially since officers often have more pressing duties, and downcast eyes aren’t a sufficient reason to stop a vehicle. Confiscating a cell phone after just one infraction might make a big impression, however.

That may sound like an unreasonable penalty, but the real-life consequences can be fatal, and that multiplier of 23 is just too big to ignore.