Driven to distraction 

Florida legislators are trying (again) to prevent distracted driving, but it’s going to be hard for drivers to break the habit.

Speaking at a press conference in Tampa earlier this month, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood pulled out his BlackBerry, a ritual for him when discussing distracted driving.

“Everybody in this room has used this behind the wheel of a car. I know it’s true,” he said, slowly looking around at the roomful of reporters staring back at him.

“I don’t even have to ask for a show of hands, because we’re hooked on these. So it takes a combination of a lot of things to change people’s dangerous behavior, and we’re not going to change it overnight.”

As one of those reporters, I dutifully nodded while recording the cabinet secretary’s comments on my Zoom player. But the impact of his remarks — as well as those of several others who spoke at the Florida Distracted Drivers Summit — didn’t truly kick in for me until two nights later, as I drove to Oldsmar along Tampa Road, the roadway that connects Hillsborough to Pinellas County.

Every time I came to a stop at a red light (and there were plenty of them), I pulled out my Android phone to bring up and read about Operation Pillar of Defense, the Israeli military’s term for their assault on Gaza. I would throw the phone back on the passenger seat once the light turned green, then pick it up at the next red light. But I realized as I did it that I was — and am — a part of the problem.

Distracted driving is on the rise in this country. And it needs to stop.

An hour and a half before LaHood spoke in the Tampa Convention Center, an anguished Kristen Murphy addressed the 300 people in attendance.

“We don’t need Florida to do any more studies,” the Naples resident said. “Our children died a preventable death.” She and the other parents on the dais gave heartbreaking testimony to the vitality and spark of their children, all of whom died in car crashes caused by motorists whose attention was focused on their cellphones instead of the road.

Chelsey Murphy, 19 and four weeks pregnant, was killed by such a driver while crossing U.S. 41 in Naples in March of 2010. “I never in a million years thought I would bury a child due to a simple little device,” Kristen Murphy continued. “My life will never be normal. It will never be the same again.”

Russell Herd lost his 26-year-old engaged daughter Heather in 2008, when she was killed by a tractor-trailer truck driver who was texting while driving and slammed into nine cars on U.S. 27 in Florida.

“It’s the worst nightmare a parent can have,” he told the crowd at the Convention Center. “I want you to think about the Heather who exists in your life. I want you to think about their wishes, and how each of us has the power to end the sorry, each of us has the power to end the pain, each of us has the power in our hands to end distracted driving.”

The grieving parents gave a human face to the numbing statistics about the dangers of distracted driving. Over 3,000 Americans died in 2010 due to “distraction-affected crashes,” and an additional 416,000 were injured.

Secretary LaHood was one of the featured speakers at the day-long forum. He said his main mission was to inspire Florida residents to contact their state representatives in support of distracted driving legislation. Florida is on the extremely short list of states that have no restrictions on the use of cellphones while driving. Currently, 39 states ban text messaging for all drivers. Another five states ban only novice drivers from texting.

It’s not as if FL legislators haven’t attempted to address the problem. Bills have been proposed in Tallahassee since 2002, but for a variety of reasons none has passed. Some of those failures can be traced to influential lawmakers who didn’t favor such legislation, including Fort Lauderdale state Senator Ellyn Bogdanoff and House Speaker Dean Cannon. But Bogdanoff lost her re-election bid to Democrat Maria Sachs, and Cannon has been term-limited out of office.

Boca Raton House Democrat Irv Slosberg is co-sponsoring a bill with Sarasota House Republican Doug Holder that would ban handheld electronics use by drivers 18 and younger. He says the odds of his bill getting through are about “50-50, maybe 40-60.”

“I’m sure Speaker [Will] Weatherford is thinking about which way to go,” Slosberg says about the new leader of the Florida House, adding that he thinks it might have a fighting chance. “With Speaker Cannon there was just no listening, but I think Speaker Weatherford is going to listen.”

Weatherford has said that he would be open to discussing specific plans, but had concerns about “individual rights.” That could be a bad omen for Slosberg, as it echoes Dean Cannon’s oft-stated concerns about balancing individual rights with public safety.

One of the first bills officially entered in Tallahassee last week for the 2013 session was an anti-texting-while-driving law from Sarasota GOP state Senator Nancy Detert. SB 0052 is called a secondary law, meaning it could only be enforced if the offender has been busted for another violation. This marks the fourth time Detert has introduced such legislation. A similar version “died on calendar” last winter.

While advocates argue that legislation and enforcement are critical, they represent only the legal, not the psychological or technological factors involved.

According to AAA, more than one in three drivers admits to texting or emailing while driving in the past month, yet 94 percent say they personally consider it unacceptable for a driver to text or email. So obviously we don’t like the idea of the other guy or gal doing it on the road — but think that we can handle it safely on our own.

Paul Atchley isn’t surprised at that dichotomy. The University of Kansas psychology professor says we don’t see what our eyes are open to see, but what our brains tell us.

“Most people don’t realize that we only process at most 40 percent of what our eyes can see,” noting how magicians can exploit those blind spots. “The brain’s most amazing ability is self-deception. It’s designed not to see everything.”

And Atchley fears that the problem of distracted drivers is only going to get worse before it gets better.

His theory is that smartphones and built-in features in new cars are allowing people to engage in distracted driving at an even greater rate, and for longer periods of time.

Cellphone use in cars for talking or texting became a problem a decade ago. Then in 2007 came the revolutionary device called the iPhone. Now many more people have email, the World Wide Web and assorted games to further divert their attention from the road.

A study of 1,000 drivers conducted by State Farm this summer showed that the percentage of those who access the Web on their phones has jumped from 13 percent in 2009 to 21 percent this year — but among those between the ages of 18-29, the number has increased from 43 to 48 percent. Forty-three percent of young people also check their email while driving, up from 36 percent in 2009.

Chris Mullen, State Farm’s director of technology research, told USA Today that “it could be” that the anti-texting campaigns should also include warnings about surfing while driving.

“There are a number of technologies coming that will probably be worse than we have now,” Professor Atchley says.

Those who have studied driver safety point to examples where education and strict laws have substantially reduced accidents. But those milestones were reached only after years, if not decades of debate.

Seat belts, for example, started getting included in new automobiles in the 1960s, after consumer advocate Ralph Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile. But state laws requiring adult use didn't start getting passed until the 1990s, and it's taken 20 years since then to get 86 percent of Americans to buckle up. “These things take time,” said Transportation Secretary LaHood in Tampa. “We’re trying to change behavior.”

Another way to change behavior is through the power of public service announcements. And the cellphone companies are leading the way.

AT&T is behind the “It Can Wait” campaign, which began in 2010. Andrea Brands, director of consumer safety and education, says the combination of teen texting with inexperience behind the wheel inspired the corporation to provide such information. Key to that campaign has been a 10-minute YouTube “Don’t Text While Driving” film that has been viewed by well over 3 million people. Brands says AT&T will hold 19 different teen summits throughout the country next year encouraging them to take action “for their own lives, for their friends, their community, and anybody else they care about.”

And while the Florida Legislature fiddles, local businesses and even local governments are picking up the slack.

Sunstar Paramedics, the provider of ambulance services for all of Pinellas County, implemented a policy in 2007 that prevents drivers from using any type of electrical device while operating a company vehicle.

Rob Smith, a spokesman for Sunstar, says trainees are subject to “an extensive classroom portion that shows a lot of great videos of people who have been texting while driving, or talking on a cellphone while driving.” Sadly their exposure to the effects of distracted driving continues in the course of their job when they’re transporting accident victims to the hospital. “When they’re out there working on the street, they get to see the reality of what happens.”

Across the I-4 corridor, major corporations like Disney and Darden Restaurants (corporate owner of Red Lobster and Olive Garden) have also implemented policies banning employees with company cellphones from texting while driving.

And then there’s technology that can prevent such activities from occurring. One of the best-known mobile apps in this genre is SafeOnTheMove, produced by Boca Raton’s Options Media Group.

If a phone is moving more than 10 mph, the application automatically disables texting, emailing, surfing the Web and instant messaging. It also sends a text message to the administrator of the phone (it can be an employer but it often will be a parent) when the phone has gone over a certain speed limit.

There have been similar apps, but a team of engineers at Anna University of Technology in India has gone one better, using radio-frequency identification to detect if a car is in motion. The system then sends a low-range mobile jammer to prevent the driver’s phone from operating. It can also notify police when a driver is trying to use a phone while behind the wheel.

But experts say technology won’t save us from ourselves. They say that only education and a profound change in habits will wean drivers from their addiction to distraction.


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