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The tragic epidemic of distracted driving

Posted: September 3, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 3, 2013 2:00 a.m.
 

Many high school students returning to classes this fall will find a new topic added to their curriculum: the dangers of distracted driving. Or to put it in blunt terms a teenager might grasp: Texting kills.

AT&T, in cooperation with three other communications companies, has commissioned a 35-minute video from noted filmmaker Werner Herzog. It tells the stories of four people whose lives were damaged forever by a second or two of inattention. By the seductive lure of technology.

A shorter version is being distributed to 40,000 high schools, and every one should make it mandatory viewing. To be crass here: If you insist on texting while at the wheel and wrap yourself around a telephone pole in the process, OK, you brought that on yourself. You made a decision and live with the consequences.

But Herzog’s video is so powerful because it focuses on the bystanders, the innocent victims of the distracted drivers. The young football player, walking down a street holding hands with his sister, who is now confined to a wheelchair. The three Amish children killed when a van smashed into their family’s horse-drawn buggy.

Driving is the most dangerous thing most of us do every day, maybe ever. And we have a long record in this country of requiring innovations that make driving safer. Auto companies were forced against their will to install airbags. Drivers now buckle seat belts automatically, if only to silence the annoying signal that goes off when they don’t. Driving drunk is now socially and morally unacceptable.

Now it’s time to focus on the perils of technology. If anything, it’s even more dangerous than alcohol. Numerous studies have shown that texters get absorbed in conversations, lose track of time and become unguided missiles of destruction.

Car and Driver magazine, for example, rigged a car with a red light to tell drivers when to brake. For unimpaired drivers, the reaction time was about a half second. Drinking added four feet of reaction time; reading emails added 36 feet; sending a text, 70 feet.

In 2011, 200,000 crashes involved drivers who were texting, estimates the National Safety Council. Newsday quotes researchers at the Cohen Children’s Medical Center who calculate that texting causes 3,000 deaths and 300,000 injuries among teenagers every year -- more than the number maimed or murdered in alcohol-induced incidents.

Ray LaHood, the former Secretary of Transportation, vehemently decries what he calls the “epidemic” of distracted driving and blames the way new technologies are made and marketed. The message pushed in pervasive ads: Be wired or be weird. Unplugging is uncool.

“The problem in America is our cellphones are, in a sense, like alcohol,” he told The New York Times. “We’re hooked on them and can’t put them down when behind the wheel of the car, when we’re driving. (We) can’t put them down, anyplace, anytime, anywhere.”

So what can be done? Laws are a start. Beginning with Washington state in 2007, 41 states now prohibit text messaging for all drivers; six others apply a ban to novice drivers and three to school bus drivers. Twelve states also ban hand-held cellphones and many are adding a “primary enforcement” provision, which means that cops can stop you merely for talking or texting. They don’t need another reason, like reckless driving.

A second answer is technology itself. Apps are now increasingly available that disable a phone when a car is in motion. But drivers won’t buy or use them unless something more basic changes -- cultural norms.

The whole experience with drunk driving is very instructive. It took a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of deaths, but eventually the principle was widely established: Don’t drink and drive. That has not yet happened with texting.

“We have some very strong taboos against drinking and driving,” Dr. Andrew Adesman of the Cohen Center told Newsday. “Kids don’t drink and drive every day. But some kids are out there texting and driving seven days a week -- and they admit it.”

That’s why AT&T is doing a very good thing by sponsoring the Herzog film. Communications companies helped create the culture of constant connectivity and now they have an obligation to temper it a bit. So do the car companies that now cram their vehicles with the latest electronic devices.

“At the end of the day, we are trying to save lives,” says Michelle Kuckelman, a spokesman for AT&T. That’s a goal worth praising and promoting.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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