Distracted driving becoming No. 1 problem

I recently attended the annual state Highway Safety Symposium. This year many of the sessions were devoted to the increasing problem of distracted driving and what, if anything, can be done about it.

Years ago, many of the presentations were about drinking and driving. Not surprisingly to those working in traffic safety, the problems associated with intoxicated drivers are continuing to decline. We can now point to a cultural change, where drunk driving is now viewed as a danger no longer to be tolerated by society.

However, distracted driving is still not seen as the dangerous practice that it has become. Surveys have shown that, although most drivers view cell phone use while driving as a danger, most continue to do so anyway. To most drivers, the need to be “connected” at all times overrides the small danger that they perceive, even though it has been compared with driving with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08, the legal level for intoxication.

Legislators in New York state have realized just how dangerous using electronic devices while driving really is. This is evident by their elevating this conviction from two points to three, and this summer to a five point violation, the same as reckless driving or passing a stopped school bus.

At the recent traffic safety symposium, attendees learned that the current estimate of distracted driving crashes is at 26 percent of all crashes and rising. Presenters on this topic felt that a cultural change in attitudes toward this dangerous practice is needed, similar to what took place relative to intoxicated driving. Unfortunately, this may take time. Meanwhile, in 2010, the National Safety Council estimated that about 24 percent of crashes, totaling some 1.4 million, were caused by talking on cellphones and texting while driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, also in 2010, the most recent year of available statistics, estimated that at any one time, 9 percent of all drivers were talking on cellphones. Scary stuff!

But, you may ask, using a hands-free cellphone isn’t so dangerous, right? Wrong! The dangers of distracted driving are visual, manual, and cognitive. Texting uses all three. Hand-held cell phone uses two. However, for hands-free cellphone use, the danger is the conversation itself, not holding the phone. The cognitive impairment of the conversation is the real danger in driving while conducting a phone conversation.

Lastly, you will say (I’ve heard it so many times), “Why is using a hands-free cell phone any more dangerous than talking to a passenger?” The answer is that a passenger can see what is going on as you drive. If they see something dangerous that you don’t, they can holler. Someone on the other end of a phone conversation cannot see what you, the driver, are seeing. This may seem trivial, but it is not.

If you are now convinced that distracted driving is a problem for everyone, great. If not, start thinking about it – it shouldn’t take long for you to realize the problem.

For more articles on traffic law and safety, go to the traffic safety board’s website at: and click on “Traffic Safety Board” under departments then look for Did You Know articles under “service.”