Opinion: Let’s Treat Distracted Driving Like Drunk Driving

Here in Illinois it’s recently become illegal to use a “hand-held device” — i/e a mobile phone — while driving. This is intended to curb talking while driving and make the road a better place. However, the new statute doesn’t appear to directly address texting, which is arguably the more dangerous thing for people to do with their mobile phones while driving. It’s a step in the right direction, but from this scooterist’s perspective, these kinds of statutes rarely go far enough. For instance, the citation here in Illinois is $75 for your first offense and $100 for every subsequent offense. Given that a Chicago area parking ticket is $150 and up, these fines are laughably small considering the safety hazard posed by distracted driving. However, four offenses in a single year will cost you your license, so that’s at least a start.

Why does this matter? Well distracted driving is perhaps the single most dangerous hazard on our roadways today. For us as scooterists, riding out in the open is hazardous enough, even when car drivers aren’t distracted. Add a smartphone into the mix and Main St. turns into Thunderdome. We’re literally riding for our lives.

It’s been said that distracted driving is worse that drunk driving. We went looking for confirmation and found this article from How Stuff Works:

“In 2008, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that almost 6,000 fatalities and over half of a million injuries were due to accidents caused by drivers who were distracted. The study wasn’t focused on texting, but it does show the seriousness of driving while distracted. Like many other driving distractions, texting involves a certain amount of mental attention as well as physical application which may be why 28 states have banned drivers from texting while operating a vehicle”

That fatalities number, at 6,000 people, is pretty staggering. That’s about twice as many people as died in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. That $75 fine here in Chicago starts to sound a little more ridiculous doesn’t it? But what is there to do? It’s easy to complain, so how about some solutions?

Much stiffer penalties

A DWI/DUI conviction can cost an offender upwards of $10,000. If lives are lost, we’re talking jail time in most cases. If there is compelling evidence that distracted driving poses an even greater public safety issue than driving under the influence of drugs such as alcohol, then shouldn’t the punishment be proportional? If I’m screwing around with my smartphone while driving and cause an accident, how is that not gross negligence?

One aspect of the new Illinois statute is that police officers are granted specific discretion with distracted driving cases. For example, if someone is using their phone in-hand during an emergency, police won’t cite them. Obviously, smart checks and balances are necessary in order for any such statute to be effective without becoming draconian, but given that existing rules and penalties are disproportionately light, and considering the dangers involved, it seems like some step in a more aggressive direction is appropriate.

Making a cultural shift

Road culture in the United States deserves a serious overhaul. I could go on for pages about how American drivers in particular don’t take driving seriously. We’ve been doing it for so long, and start driving at such a young age, that by the time we reach adulthood driving is such a common, forgettable activity that we rarely stop to consider the responsibility we take on in operating several thousand pounds of rolling death. What’s more, because driving is so common, we think of it as right instead of a privilege. Somehow, we’ve got to find a way to start taking driving seriously again. I think the solution could lie in education and licensing. Most of us take Driver’s Ed for a semester in high school, but what if driving required a much more rigorous educational baseline? What if instead of licensing drivers, we rigorously certified them? If I want to operate a larger vehicle like a bus or a semi truck, I’ve got to get a CDL certification. A more certification-oriented licensing program is already in place in much of the Western world. In some European and Scandinavian countries, full licensure can take as long as three years. Permits bridge that time and make it possible for people to do what they need to do, but by the time they’re fully licensed, they’ve had a lot more car control and situational training than we ever receive here in The States.

Yet the nanny state can’t solve all our problems for us. A shift in popular culture would likely prove much more effective. There are few things in American culture that are as universally reviled as drunk driving. Get a DUI and you’re a scum bag. It’s a pretty universal shame, and that’s a good thing because it’s deplorable behavior. Distracted driving needs to reach that same level of societal scorn, and quickly. First, those of us who understand the hazards, like scooterists, should be leading by example. Just like riding a scooter has probably made you a more skilled, attentive car driver in general, it should also motivate all of us to put our phones away while we drive. If you’re using your phone while you drive (or ride), it’s time to stop. It’s time for us to claim the moral high ground so we can then go on the offensive.

How do we do that? It starts by calling out our friends and family. If I were sitting in the passenger seat, and my buddy were sipping from a bottle of whiskey behind the wheel, I would flip out on him. Wouldn’t you? It’s time to hold each other accountable for our phone usage as well. “Dude, you’re going to kill somebody. Tell me what you want to say and I’ll send the message. Or pull over. WTF?” In the end, it’s up to our friends and family if they’re going to stop, but especially as a scooterist we have an opportunity to tell people first hand how dangerous distracted driving is. We’ve all seen it first hand. We’ve all had to swerve or brake to avoid some jackass in a car with their phone in their hand.

The last piece, I think, is a matter of perspective. As eye-rolling as most PSAs are, the “It can wait” slogan is a very compelling concept. That’s something we’ve each got to consider when we talk about this subject. Why am I so concerned about that email or text message right this second? How far am I really going? Is there anything in my inbox that can’t wait 15 minutes? Again, as scooterists we’re uniquely equipped to practice this perspective. Part of the joy of riding is how it shuts everything else out. Let’s re-orient our priorities and help others do the same.

Do-Not-Disturb

Technological solutions

Thing is, mobile phones aren’t dangerous by default. Having a mobile phone in our vehicles is a tremendously convenient thing that really does add to safety. If I get lost or break down, I can easily call for help. With some small steps, we can make using our mobile phones while we drive much easier habit to give up.

Car Mode: On the iPhone, there’s a mode called “do not disturb” that turns off push notifications and silences all the little dings and vibrations that happen every time a new communication comes in asking for our attention. The phone is still on and still functions and I don’t have to exit that mode to make a phone call or use any of my iPhone’s functions. The only difference is that it stops demanding my attention. While there’s no system-level equivalent on Android or Windows Phone (please correct me if I’m wrong there), there are a number of apps available that mimic this functionality. Using this mode/apps is something we could all start doing right now.

However, I’d love to see a “car mode” added to all the major mobile phone platforms. It’d be very similar to do not disturb, but with a few extra features. Using the accelerometers and location services available in smartphones today, in car mode, the phone’s functions could change whenever the phone is in motion. At stop lights or pulled over, the phone would operate normally, but once moving the majority of the phone’s functionality would be shut down with the exception of three app types:

  • • The telephone app
  • • Navigation apps
  • • Audio apps for music, podcasts, etc.

In car mode, I’d suggest changes to the apps themselves as well. In the phone app, for example, it should default to keypad mode only while in motion. No address book. That way I can easily call 911 in an emergency, but there’s no temptation to join that conference call or initiate a call with my uncle Bob while driving. Additionally, all incoming calls should go to voicemail with the exception of two numbers that I’d get to choose, such as my spouse and my kids’ school. Those would always ring through.

Navigation apps are self-explanatory, and the better they get, the more they can actually add safety to the driving experience. If I don’t have to worry about how to get where I’m going, I can focus more on driving itself.

Music apps could have intelligent functionality as well. In motion, play/pause and next/previous controls would still work normally, but choosing different albums or playlists would need to wait until the next stop light.

The best part is that by detecting when the phone is in-motion and not, one could conceivably leave their phone in Car Mode most of the time. When you’re just sitting at your desk or walking down the hall, your phone would work normally. The only time you might need to turn it off is when you’re the passenger in a vehicle.

Man on Orange Vespa

It starts with us

These days people are starting to feel over-regulated. Many argue that as Americans, part of our freedom includes the right to be stupid. While that libertarian POV can be compelling, with it comes a car load of responsibility. If we all behaved responsibly when it mattered and took care of each other of our own volition, we wouldn’t need rules and regulation. So really, if you want to keep the freedom to be stupid, you need to exercise that freedom by being smart on your own. We also don’t always get the rules and regulations we actually need even when they do come along. Case-in-point, these $75 distracted driving fines. So in the end, it’s up to us. It’s up to us to lead by example and to challenge those around us to make better, safer choices or get off the road. You never know, if we can bring about real cultural change, the life you save might be your own.

Photo Credits: Flickr, Flickr, Flickr and Flickr.

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