Opinion: Distracted driving — do we need another law?

A few years ago when my car was new, I was breezing along SR 99 at about 70 mph when a long message flashed on my dashboard’s message center. Immediately, I raised my foot off the accelerator and checked my rearview and driver’s side mirrors to see if it was safe to pull over and stop on the shoulder. Naturally, I assumed that something was wrong with the engine or some other essential function of the car.


I’m a slow reader, so I didn’t even try to get a sense of the message until the car came to a stop. Here’s the message:


Take your eyes off the road for too long or too often while using this system could cause a crash resulting in injury or death to you or others.


Focus your attention on driving.


I had to press “OK” to get rid of the message. Then I wanted to punch the dashboard to death for scaring the you-know-what out of me while driving at freeway speed. That message still shows up every once in a while, but at least I know what it is now. Perhaps the engineers who designed the system should have considered showing the warning only when the vehicle is first started or at least at a full stop.


What is distracted diving?


Bottom line: Distracted driving is operating a vehicle while doing anything other than keeping your mind and bodily actions concentrated completely on the road and traffic. People of my generation, and the Baby Boomers who followed close on our heels, have been largely cavalier about driving safely. That is especially surprising because, when we were young, automobile safety technology was primitive compared to today.


Seat belts, for example, did not come installed in cars. In 1965, I was a member of the Sunnyvale (CA) Junior Chamber of Commerce, and my project was to develop a program for installing seat belts in cars. With the cooperation of local businesses, we set up on Saturday mornings in the parking lots of department stores. People would purchase a set of seat belts, and members of the SJCC would install them. This involved punching holes in the floor of the car behind the front seats. There were no rear-seat belts. The seat belts that were available only crossed one’s lap, no cross-torso protection.


It would be years before air bags became common. And, although auto safety devices have improved dramatically over the past 50 years, people have not changed much from those of us who used El Camino Real from Mountain View, through Palo Alto, to Menlo Park as a midnight dragstrip. Today, fortunately, most drivers are more careful, but distracted driving is still a major problem.


Types of distracted driving


There are three main types of distracted driving: visual, cognitive, and manual. Visual distractions involve looking at something other than the road. Cognitive distractions occur when a driver is thinking about something other than driving. And reaching for something — even inserting a CD or changing radio stations — is a manual distraction.


According to a study conducted by Toyota, the top 10 distractions while driving are (1) being lost in thought, (2) cell-phone use, (3) looking at something outside the car other than the road, (4) looking at/talking to someone in the car, (5) using a device within the car, (6) eating or drinking, (7) adjusting the radio, heater, or air conditioner, (8) using a vehicle function, such as cruise control, (9) moving objects, like articles on the passenger seat, and (10) smoking. The important thing to be learned from the car-maker’s study is that every type of distracted driving increases the likelihood of a car crash, injury, or even death.


Cell phones and the law


Although cellular phones have been around for a generation and have been shown to be a major driving distraction, only 20 states (including California) have comprehensive laws banning their use while driving. Twenty-eight have laws that apply to certain circumstances, use, or people, especially new drivers and drivers below a specified age. Arizona and Montana have no laws banning the use of cell phone.


Last month, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) released a study on driving and cell-phone use in Washington, Oregon, and California. In Oregon and Washington, it is illegal to hold a cell phone or other electronic device while behind the wheel, including when the vehicle is stopped in traffic or at a red light. California bans “holding and using” a cell phone, but it does not include a prohibition that applies to temporary stops.


The study involved data collected before the passage of Oregon and Washington’s strict laws with data collected after the statutes were passed. The IIHS study showed that rear-end injury crash rates dropped 11 percent in Washington and nine percent in Oregon after their bans to holding a cell phone took effect. Data from California did not indicate a reduction in rear-end collisions.


Obviously, the vast majority of us can’t avoid every possible distraction while driving, but I hope that the evidence from this short article will convince people that distracted driving is dangerous. However, we can take certain precautions. When someone is in the car with me, I talk with him or her. But, if I’m about to enter Hell’s Maze where Cleveland Avenue crosses SR 99, I stop talking and stop listening. In general, I’m opposed to firing squads performing executions, but if I ever meet the engineer who designed that death trap, I’d make an exception.


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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.