Saturday, August 08, 2009

Driving while texting: the new DUI

Hi everyone,

720 words barely starts to cover how scary the numbers are. Study after study on distracted driving suggests it's as dangerous as drinking and driving... plus, I've been amazed, just in the past month, how many lousy drivers I've had to dodge because they're yakking away without paying attention. Anyway, I came up with a little psychological trick that's been giving me a chuckle... included at the end.

Saturday's column.

Driving while texting: The new DUI

You’ve seen them, too.

A sleek black SUV wobbles in its lane. You pull up along side. The driver is a multitasking commuter balancing his phone, a tall stainless steel travel mug of coffee and, maybe, even a spreadsheet from work while steering with one knee.

Or what about that lady in front of you, review mirror bent down to allow a careful application of lipstick, on the phone, yakking faster than she’s driving, and paying no attention to the reef of red brake lights looming ahead.

Once, just outside of Fond du Lac, I passed a driver who was watching a video on his iPod.

How many of these people did you see – today?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) collected data suggesting that, at any time during daylight hours in 2007, 11 percent of all drivers – around 1.8 million people – were using cell phones. I almost rear-ended one of them a few weeks ago.

While navigating late afternoon traffic through the Zoo Interchange, I found myself behind a slow moving Saab weaving back and forth in his lane as we merged from I-894 onto northbound Highway 45. I remember thinking it was a bit too early in the day to find a drunk driver but, then, this is Wisconsin. We have the dumbest drunk driving laws in the country. So I waited until he’d settled down a bit and accelerated to pass.

I glanced into the car as I went by. He wasn’t drunk. He was texting. He had a cup of coffee in his right hand and his cell phone in the left, texting with his left thumb. At 50 mph. On a twisty and busy onramp.

I couldn’t stop myself: I honked my horn to wake him up. Just that friendly little double-tap “hey how’s it going” kind of honk. He bobbled his coffee, startled back into consciousness, looked up irritated and flipped me off. Of course. But once his attention was restored, he jerked that 3,000 pounds of Swedish steel and glass back into his own lane amazingly fast.

I called the State Patrol afterward to ask about the legality of honking at obviously impaired drivers, but they never got back to me. Look, if I pull up to a car that’s weaving and I see the driver nodding off, I’m going to honk to wake them up. Most drunk or sleepy drivers (unless they’re repeat offenders) don’t even realize they’re impaired when they get behind the wheel – neither do cell phone yakkers.

The numbers tell the story.

A 2003 Harvard study estimated that “cellphone distraction caused 2,600 traffic deaths every year, and 330,000 accidents that result in moderate or severe injuries.” An Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study, using crash data and cell phone records, found that “cell phone users are four times as likely to have injury crashes.” The risk remained the same for both handheld and hands-free phones. A 2006 study by the University of Utah found that drivers using cell phones are as impaired as those who blow a blood-alcohol level of .08 – over the limit in most states.

Talking is bad. Texting is worse. Initial findings from a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study showed that the collision risk for drivers while was 23 times higher than when they weren’t texting.

We haven’t done anything about this problem, even though the NHTSA has documented studies dating back to 1990. About 170 bills designed to address distracted driving were introduced in state legislatures last year, but fewer than 10 were passed. Minnesota and Illinois both have legal restrictions placed on cell phone use (school bus drivers, for instance, are barred from using cell phones while working). Not us. In Wisconsin, only Glendale and Marshfield have enacted municipal ordinances banning driver cell phone use.

While we wait for the politicians to catch up, here’s something you can do to amuse yourself. Next time you drive by someone engrossed in a conversation on their cell phone, use your imagination to replace their cell phone with a frosty bottle of beer. Can you see it? That starts to provide the right mental picture of their state of mind. And for those of you who still chose to yakyak while you drive: next time you answer your cell phone on the interstate, or decide to call a friend because you’re bored, imagine you’ve just cracked open a cold one and are now sneaking a quick chug. What could it hurt?

Update: I was contacted by the State Patrol and just didn't get their comments in time. The nice officer reminded me that honking is discouraged -- since it can cause accidents if you're not careful -- but, if someone sways into your lane, you have a perfect right to alert them. The best course of action, he suggested, as always, is to drive defensively.

My thanks to the nice folks at the Wisconsin State Patrol.



Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,
Great Column.
I have to admit I am sometimes guilty of a text while driving.

It's bad. I know it's risky when I do it. But you made me think about something....

What if I send a quick text to someone while I'm driving. And they respond or read while they're driving... And something happens. The last thing I want to do is harm someone I love because I was careless. I don't like it when Jim plays with his ipod while he drives. I will think twice before texting again.


Michael said...

hopefully you and readers can check out - a new solution to help prevent distracted driving.

PaulyW said...

Too bad we can't slap "Texting Driver" stickers on as we go by and then everybody can avoid them. Big problem that needs attention. They should be able to re-construct if a person was texting up to an incident and start handing out hefty fines.

Cameron said...

The statistics are amazing. There are tonnes of products and technologies that deal with Email and Text. Zoomsafer is one technology, dial2Do is another and Voice on the Go is the third I've come across. They appear to be doing all the same thing but Voice on the Go appears to work on all phones, has no contact restrictions (i.e. how many you can load) and when I speak a response to somebody they convert my voice into text; something I have never seen before. I found a nice free trial here: