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You and your family are on the road heading to Grandma’s for Christmas dinner. You’re at the wheel and get a call from a relative asking when you’ll be arriving. You answer what should be a quick question, but then get caught up in the conversation that lasts for several minutes. While this might seem like an innocent and common situation, you are actually driving distracted and putting your entire family and others on the road at risk.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and US Department of Transportation have been focusing more and more on the dangers of distracted driving in the last 10 years. While not always to blame, distraction among drivers has increased with the abundant use of portable electronic devices.
The NTSB has investigated many fatal crashes that have demonstrated the danger of using these devices while operating a vehicle (also including planes, trains and vessels). Talking hands-free on a cell phone led to a seasoned motorcoach driver colliding with a bridge, pilots have overflown their destinations because they were distracted by their laptops, and the use of portable electronic devices while driving has led to an increased number of crashes and an increased number of deaths.
Distraction is complicated, and transportation researchers are still learning about what the human brain can and cannot handle. But they do know that crash risk increases when an operator is using a portable electronic device. Studies examining crash data have identified as much as a fourfold increase in crash risk when engaging in a cell phone conversation. They have also found that there are longer reaction times with cell phone use regardless of whether the device is handheld or hands-free. Reaching for a cell phone, headset or earpiece also increases the risk of distraction.
The NTSB’s recommendation is to remove all portable electronic devices that do not directly support the task of driving. Here are some ways they suggest this can realistically be accomplished:
• States and regulators can set the proper tone by banning the nonessential use of such devices in transportation.
• Companies should develop and enforce policies to eliminate distractions for employees who spend time on the road.
• Manufacturers can develop technology that disables devices when in reach of vehicle operators.
• Crash investigators at the Federal, state and local levels should incorporate into their protocols a system for checking whether the nonessential use of portable electronic devices led to crashes. This information is essential to better identify safety issues and find out where to dedicate resources to stop this dangerous behavior.
• Because young inexperienced drivers are more likely to use portable electronic devices while behind the wheel, laws, education and enforcement efforts should place special emphasis on curbing the use of portable electronic devices by these drivers.
Whether traveling near or far as we head into the holiday season, consider turning your phone off and placing it out of reach to avoid distracted driving. And while you are at it, don’t drive when you are drowsy. Instead, pull over to a safe place, make your phone calls and take a nap. A refreshed and attentive driver is the safest kind.