Driving With Distractions

Okay, I admit it: the other day I ate an In-N-Out Double-Double cheeseburger while I was driving home from a baseball game. Late last week I chatted with a co-worker while driving back to the office from a business meeting. And this evening when I leave my desk to head to my little stucco-covered castle, it’s possible I will speak to my wife on my cellular phone while I venture down a crowded freeway at 65 miles per hour.

Am I being careless with my life and those of other innocent people, many of whom no doubt have children and other loved ones, or is this distracted driving issue getting more play than it actually deserves?

If you are one whom believes that where there is smoke there is fire, the anecdotal evidence suggests that distracted driving is a big problem. Among the highly visible “distracted driver” accident victims are author Stephen King, who was reportedly struck by a driver who was trying to keep his dog from messing around in a cooler in the back, and supermodel Niki Taylor, who was critically injured when the driver of the car in which she was riding struck a utility pole after allegedly reaching down to answer a cellular phone.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) thinks enough of the problem to have initiated several inquiries about driver distraction. Testifying before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee, L. Robert Shelton, who is executive director of NHTSA, said, “Based on a 1996 NHTSA study, the agency estimates that driver distraction in all of its various forms probably contributes to between 20 and 30 percent of all crashes.”

The Network of Employers for Traffic Safety, a coalition of government and corporate members interested in reducing traffic accidents, estimates that one-quarter to one-half of the roughly six million crashes each year are caused by distracted drivers. Mark Edwards, who is managing director of safety programs for the American Automobile Association, says on a daily basis somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 to 8,000 crashes are caused by drivers who are distracted.

Certainly, if you believe these expert organizations, and there is no reason not to, the number of accidents caused by driver distractions is huge. But it is also a huge leap to look at these statistics, or more precisely estimates, and then conclude we must ban activities like cell phone use in automobiles. For some reason, (perhaps because they have become so ubiquitous in so short a time period) cellular telephones usually take the brunt of negative publicity surrounding distracted driving, but cellular phones are but one cause of distraction. Others include eating, drinking, being merry, adjusting radio controls, inserting CD or cassettes, adjusting the heat or air conditioning, turning the windshield wipers on, looking at a map, reading the newspaper, putting on makeup, talking with a passenger, swatting away insects, thinking…well, you get the idea. There are a lot of things that can take our attention away from our primary job when we are behind the wheel and that is driving. If we’re going to ban cellar phones, are we also going to ban the wide assortment of other in-vehicle pastimes, like fast food and thinking of my particular favorite, thinking about fast food?

When one looks at some of the data gathered on this issue, one also has to wonder how useful it is in examining the problem. According to recent survey of 1,026 drivers that was released to the media by NETS, 70 percent of drivers say they routinely talk to other passengers while driving. One has to wonder, are the other 30 percent mute or very shy? Just 47 percent said they adjust controls. Does this mean 53 percent never re-tune the radio, adjust the heat or turn on their headlights? Some 15 percent of drivers claimed they did nothing distracting at all, which makes one wonder if 15 percent of the population are congenital liars and/or sociopaths. Or, as the NHTSA’s Shelton put it in more politically correct terms, “Exact statistics may never be known due to the difficulty of determining driver actions prior to a crash.”

Certainly, drivers who do not pay proper attention to their driving responsibility are a problem on our streets, but let us look before we leap into knee-jerk solutions.

The co-host of the syndicated radio show “America on the Road,” Jack R. Nerad has participated in numerous safety programs in his years as an automotive journalist.