Eyes on the road

Lee's Summit JournalDecember 11, 2013 

The driverless car is on the horizon. Sounds dangerous, doesn’t it? But how dangerous is a vehicle operated by a distracted driver not even paying attention to the road? The Wall Street Journal’s automotive critic Dan Neil wrote, “The driverless car is coming. And we should all be glad it is.” Why? Because, he says, “obviously, people have better things to do…eating, grooming, talking on a cell phone or texting. The National Safety Council estimates that about 2.6 million accidents a year are caused by cell phone use and texting.”

There are four types of driver distraction: 1) visual – looking at something other than the road; 2) auditory – hearing something not related to driving; 3) manual – manipulating something other than the wheel; and 4) cognitive – thinking about something other than driving.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration reports that, “Texting while driving had the highest odds ratio of a serious vehicular crash relative to 16 other activities that draw a driver’s attention from the highway – 23 percent higher than non-texting drivers.” In 2008, the National Safety Council reported that 28 percent of all crashes are due to cell phone use.

“Distracted driving is a growing public safety hazard. Specifically, the dramatic rise in texting volume since 2005 appeared to be contributing to an alarming rise in distracted driving fatalities.” (F.A. Wilson and Jim Stimpson, 2010.)

The crash risk for texting is greater than for drunk driving, per research conducted with simulation studies, behavioral studies, brain-imaging, and through analyzing crashes correlated with phone records. (Strayer et al, 2006) Peter Jacobson and Lawrence Gostin report that an analysis of 125 studies confirmed that cell phone use while driving were associated with impaired reaction time.

According to Norman Anderson, CEO of the American Psychological Association, “Distracted driving is a public health hazard without age barriers that is often misunderstood by not only the public but also by both state and local policymakers.”

Paul Atchley, professor of psychology, University of Kansas, believes that “attitudes are disconnected from actions” when knowing the risk does not change the behavior. We believe our brains are more capable of task-switching and dual-tasking than they are. We perceive our brains to be a complex computer, but distracted driving, especially texting, limits our processing capabilities. The brain is self-deceptive. We think we see more than we see. We overestimate our capacity.

Even drivers who believe that using cell phones while driving is dangerous self-report using cell phones while driving.

Atchley states, “The driver is the weak link in traffic safety.” Atchley’s research reveals that a text-related crash is believed to be more preventable than a drunk-driving crash, and yet we are tolerant of texting and feel that drunk-driving penalties should be greater than those for text-related crashes.

Behavioral psychologist Susan Weinschenk conducted research on the addictive nature of texts and Twitter. Dopamine plays an active role, surging to the reward centers of our brain. Humans crave reward (receipt of a reply) but also anticipation of reward (by sending a text). Weinschenk refers to the dopamine release and our reaction to the visual or audible cue of an incoming text or tweet as if we are Pavlov’s dog.

Until we find ourselves in driverless vehicles free from the nuisance of paying attention to the road, what are the remedies to the epidemic of distracted driving?

There are laws. As of June 2011, 34 states and the District of Columbia had enacted texting bans for all drivers. There are roadway aids like rumble strips to bring the driver back to attention. But the real power is in the driver’s hands. Turn off the audio or visual cue of incoming messages. Put your phone in the trunk. Ask people not to send you messages when they know you are on the road. If you know someone is driving, refrain from sending that message. Remind yourself that it can wait.


Kathy Biagioli is a Lee’s Summit resident, middle school teacher and chair of the Education and Encouragement Subcommittee of the Lee’s Summit’s Livable Streets Advisory Board.

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