As Minnesota works to reduce the number of deaths and injuries due to traffic crashes, one of the biggest challenges is the growing number of crashes caused by distracted driving, especially texting and driving. In the last four years, almost a quarter of all crashes that resulted in a death or serious injury were attributed to distracted driving, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. But it’s also acknowledged that texting and driving is grossly underreported, mainly because it’s so difficult to obtain proof that will stand up in court.
A recent nationwide review by the National Safety Council found that, in 2011, of the fatal crashes where evidence indicated the drivers were using cell phones, only 52% were coded in FARS (Fatality Analysis Reporting System), the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s official database. This means that, “both policymakers and the public may not consider it as serious a problem compared to bigger fatality factors that can be more reliably measured, such as impaired driving and not wearing seat belts.”
In Minnesota, a 10-year report from the Toward Zero Deaths (TZD) initiative shows substantial progress in reducing the number of deaths due to driving drunk and not wearing a seat belt. Thanks to intensive education, enforcement and legislative changes to DWI citation standards, lowering the blood-alcohol level from .16 to .08, there has been a decrease of 49% in the number of people killed in alcohol-related crashes over the last decade. Meanwhile, “the number of motor vehicle occupants killed who were unbelted decreased by 59%”, following a high visibility “Click It or Ticket” paid media campaign.
Culture change around phones
But there’s still more work to be done to change our dangerous car culture and move us toward the TZD goal. The data shows that traffic deaths and injuries in Minnesota are up this year, reversing a prevailing downward trend achieved by the state’s Toward Zero Deaths campaign over the last 12 years. Impaired driving remains a factor in 25% of traffic fatalities and serious injuries; and while alcohol-related crashes are down, there are more arrests for drug impairment. Motorcycle fatalities are up this year (56 in 2015 vs. 41 YTD in 2014); and more than half of those killed were not wearing helmets. Pedestrian and bicyclist deaths are also up this year (pedestrians 24 in 2015 vs. 15 YTD in 2014 and bicyclists 9 in 2015 vs. 5 YTD in 2014).
Why are traffic deaths up in 2015 in Minnesota? Could increased use of cell phones and texting be a contributing factor?
At a recent state TZD conference, the opening speaker was New York Times journalist Matt Richtel who talked about the dangers and human costs of distracted driving, providing dramatic evidence of how texting, or any distraction, interferes with the driver’s ability to see and respond to changing conditions such as traffic slow-downs or unexpected developments in the roadway ahead. But as Richtel pointed out in his talk, there’s a disconnect between what people say about texting and driving and what they do. In a 2014 national survey, 84.4% of respondents acknowledged that texting and driving is dangerous and completely unacceptable, but 36% indicated they had read a text or e-mail in the last 30 days while driving and 27% had sent one.
After hearing Richtel speak at the TZD conference, I wanted to know more, so I read his book, A Deadly Wandering, which tells the gripping story of a years-long investigation that identified texting and driving as the cause of a deadly crash caused by 19-year-old Reggie Shaw. This tale is interwoven with leading-edge brain science that examines the effects of new communications technology on the human brain, including the irresistible impulse to respond to an incoming text or phone call, and how long it takes for the brain to shift focus from one task to another (up to 15 seconds) when attempting to text and drive. The scientific findings are chilling, and point to the complexity of the texting-and-driving issue in a society that places such a high value on being connected at all times.
In 2006, at the time of the fatal crash described in Richtel’s book, not a single state banned texting and driving. And despite evidence that cell phone use was a factor in many crashes, neuroscientists were just beginning to research the effects of expanding communications technology on the brain. Today, 46 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands have laws prohibiting texting while driving. But anecdotal evidence indicates that most people admit to texting or reading text messages from time to time; some say they only do it while stopped at a red light, which is still illegal. And despite more and more evidence that phone calls, even hands-free, are also a major distraction and cause of traffic crashes, no state bans all cell phone use for all drivers. This creates a major barrier to full reporting of texting and driving, because police officers must determine whether the driver is texting (illegal) or dialing a phone number (allowed) before issuing a citation.
Awareness and safety campaigns
The results of Saint Paul’s 2015 Pedestrian Safety Awareness Week in August 2015 bear this out. Of the 157 drivers who were cited for failing to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, 50% said they did not see the pedestrians in time to stop, an indication that they were not paying close enough attention. However, only five acknowledged they were texting — not surprising, since it’s illegal to text while driving in Minnesota, and the fines have recently been increased to $50 for a first offense and $225 plus court fees for subsequent violations. Based on observations by both volunteers and police officers, it seems likely there were many more drivers who were texting. But to issue a citation that would stand up in court, officers would have needed either an admission by the driver, a video that showed he/she was texting, or evidence based on a search of cell phone records which are difficult to obtain.
Data cited in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal makes clear that this is a huge challenge: “The National Safety Council estimates that in 2013 alone, 1.1 million crashes involved using a phone, and the Transportation Department counted more than 3,000 deaths and 400,000 injuries caused by distracted driving that same year.”
What can, or should be done about this? The success of the drunk driving and seatbelt campaigns offer a proven formula for changing attitudes and behaviors over time:
- Tough Laws with Tough Enforcement + Strong Public Education = Change
The Minnesota State Patrol recently stepped up enforcement of the texting and driving laws by putting five unmarked squad cars into service in Brainerd, Mankato and the metro area to watch for distracted drivers. According to a recent Star Tribune column, State Patrol to Texting Drivers: We Can See You, by Tim Harlow:
“The number of drivers ticketed for distracted driving has risen from 180 in 2008, when the law went into effect, to more than 3,467 in 2015.” According to Col. Matt Langer, “The unmarked squads allow troopers to get close enough to get a good look at what is going on inside other cars.” The patrol hopes these new ‘police interceptors’ “will get people to think twice before using their phones.”
Most people agree there’s also a need for tougher laws, to make any cell phone use while driving illegal. Reporter Paul Brand of the Star Tribune would take it a step further. In a recent article, he asks, “Why not disable phones in cars?” As he points out, the technology exists to disable cell phones while a vehicle is in motion, but “we, the American motorist, do not want to have cell phone use while driving regulated”. Besides, there would need to be a number of exceptions, including 911 calls and the reasonable expectation that a passenger should be able to communicate with others while riding in a car.
Brand also points out that:
“…we are numb to the inherent danger of traveling in a motor vehicle. …We can’t conceive of the incredible violence of sudden deceleration from even 30 mph to zero in 18 inches. We can’t, or choose not to understand, what can happen to the human body in a crash. And of course, we firmly believe it can only happen to the ‘other guy’.”
In the previously referenced Wall Street Journal article, “A Simple Solution for Distracted Driving“, Daniel Simon and Christopher Chabris, both of whom are psychology professors, also propose a solution that would “…disable all communication between the phone and the outside world, with the exceptions of GPS, navigation apps and emergency notifications” while a vehicle is in motion. This would be accomplished by “adding a simple feature called ‘Driving Mode’ to all mobile phone operating systems…”, similar to ‘Airplane Mode’.
The authors go on to acknowledge that “Driving Mode” will be useful only if people use it. It must be easy to turn on, ideally with the flick of a physical switch, or at least with as few taps as possible. To minimize the social pressure that we feel to respond immediately, Driving Mode should automatically send a customizable “I’m driving now” reply to texts and calls and hold your messages until you arrive.”
“The biggest challenge may be motivating drivers to turn on Driving Mode in the first place. Service providers or insurance companies could nudge drivers with rewards for using Driving Mode or costs for ignoring it. A better approach would have Driving Mode automatically activate whenever the phone’s GPS detects motion over some minimum speed. Drivers will then tend to use it by default, rather than go to the extra trouble of deactivating it.”
Meanwhile, AT&T’ has worked with BBDO to design a powerful “It Can Wait” media campaign, and more than seven million people have signed a pledge not to text while driving. They’ve also developed a free DriveMode® app “that silences incoming text message alerts so you can keep your eyes on the road and stay focused while driving. For AT&T post-paid customers, it sends an auto-reply letting the sender know you’re behind the wheel. The app turns on automatically when you’re driving 15 MPH or more and turns off shortly after you stop. Parents with young drivers can receive a text message if the app is turned off.” Now other cell phone companies are joining the campaign, but it’s still too early to tell how many people will voluntarily sever their electronic connections while driving.
Social values vs. the value of a life
This brings us back to the need for strong public education to change societal values and build the political will to prohibit all cell phone use while driving. As I learned from Matt Richtel’s talk at the TZD conference, and his book, A Deadly Wandering, reining in distracted driving requires two different types of education. First, we need to hear powerful, moving stories from individuals and families whose lives have been drastically changed by a traffic crash where distracted driving was a factor. Only when people fully understand the emotional and human costs at a gut level will they be willing to forego their texts, e-mails and phone calls for the sake of preserving a human life.
The second type of education that’s needed is a broader understanding of the limitations of the human brain, especially in its ability to multi-task. One of the key pieces of scientific evidence in Matt Richtel’s book comes from Dr. David Strayer, a professor at the University of Utah. Testifying in court, he asserts,
“When it comes to texting and driving, the scientific data says there is a sixfold increase in crash risk, exceeding the level when people are legally drunk.”
Part of the reason for this is that “After you’ve pushed ‘send’, and you’re waiting for a response, fifteen or twenty seconds may pass before you’re fully back and have regained your sense of all vehicles around you.” In Reggie Shaw’s case, this meant that Reggie was so preoccupied after texting his girlfriend that he probably wasn’t even aware of what was going on when he sideswiped the oncoming car and caused the crash.
A Deadly Wandering is a compelling, sobering, educational and inspiring book. The reader is drawn into the emotional story of the crash, which profoundly affected so many people’s lives, and at the same time is introduced throughout to scientific data explaining why texting is so irresistible and how it affects the brain and takes the driver’s mind off the task of driving. This should be required reading for young people learning to drive; in fact, I recently gave a copy to my oldest grandson who just got his learner’s permit. Another good resource is a checklist of “Ten Tips for Managing Driver Distractions“, a publication of the Governors Highway Safety Administration. But in the end, it’s going to take lots of dedicated people and a massive campaign using all the tools at our disposal to tackle distracted driving and continue our progress Toward Zero Deaths in the state of Minnesota.