The evidence continues to pile up about the terrible toll that distracted driving is taking on our nation.
A new report by the American Public Health Association counts close to 78,000 people who have died in crashes caused by distracted driving since 2000. That is an average of almost 4,000 needless deaths every year.
Drivers have been distracted since the invention of the automobile — talking to passengers, adjusting the radio, trying to get the kids to stop fighting in the back seat.
But with the invention of the cellphone, what had been a minor category among the causes of crashes has become a major problem, ranking right up there with speeding and drunken driving.
Everyone knows that using a cellphone while driving is very dangerous, but too many people still do it. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 481,000 drivers are using their cellphones during daylight hours.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety determined that those who talk on a cellphone while driving are four times more likely to crash, and those who text and drive are up to eight times more likely to crash.
The National Transportation Safety Board recently put out its “Most Wanted List” of transportation safety improvements and said: “We believe distraction should be addressed through education, legislation, and enforcement.”
There is historical evidence that all three have been effective in addressing other safety problems. Drunken driving was significantly reduced by the education efforts from such organizations as Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Lawmakers imposed stricter limits on blood alcohol levels and harsher penalties. Police used aggressive enforcement, and the courts got tougher.
Driving drunk became socially less acceptable and much more expensive, and the levels declined, at least until the mid-1990s. It has unfortunately remained steady since then, but that just means we must renew our efforts.
A fourth hope for improvement lies with technological advances that are already being made. We are not talking about self-driving cars, which still seem a good way off as engineers seek to solve the most intransigent issues.
Simpler ideas are already being advanced by many inventors, including by a local high school student.
Amogh Kashyap, a rising freshman at Urbana High School, has designed a prototype of a camera that would track a teen driver’s attention by monitoring what direction he or she is facing. If the teen turns away for at least 2 seconds, the program would send a notification to their parents saying the driver is distracted. Since the device also beeps to warn drivers that they are not paying attention, it could be useful for adults as well.
Other innovations should also prove helpful. Apple’s CarPlay program, available on newer models, will read a text aloud to the driver, and allow him to dictate a reply without glancing away from the road.
The problem of distracted driving is so large and so complicated, no one solution will end it. We will need dozens and dozens of improvements in cars, and much more awareness on the part of drivers. We will need new laws, and we will need consistent enforcement.
But as any family member or friend of one of those 78,000 people killed by distracted driving in the last two decades could tell you, it is a problem that we must work aggressively to address, before tens of thousands more are killed.