For many of us, the dangers of distracted driving are just becoming known. That's in part because of people like Rob Reynolds. Reynolds' daughter Cady was killed in a crash when another car collided with hers in Omaha. The other driver was distracted. Reynolds took the tragedy of his sixteen-year-old daughter's death and started telling people about the danger distractions in a car can present. Things like cell phones, passengers, grooming and eating. Reynolds tell what happened to his daughter, but also relates what research shows about distracted driving. "You are four times more likely to crash because you are a teenager, but if you put one person in your car who is a peer, in your same age group, you are eight times more likely to crash, your risk doubles. If you put two people in your car who are peers, than you are twelve times more likely to crash." Reynolds presentations are on behalf of two organizations; the Car Alliance for Safer Teen Driving and Focus Driven.
"This was the worst day of my life because Cady's my daughter and I can't tell you how wrong it feels that the fact she's dead is just because someone else wasn't paying attention." --Rob Reynolds during a presentation at Norfolk High School
Distracted driving, when looking at the risk of an accident, is the same as driving while intoxicated at the legal blood alcohol limit of .08. That's why Reynolds and many other safety advocates are trying to bring attention and encourage the implementation of more stringent laws on distracted driving. In Nebraska, cell phones are allowed except for drivers under 18 and even then it's a secondary offense. That means another traffic violation must occur before a driver can be stopped and then if cell phone use was observed, it can be ticketed.
Nebraska has a texting ban for all drivers, but is one of just four states with it as a secondary offense. Rose White of AAA Nebraska says what has happened in other states should happen in Nebraska. "In any state that has a primary or standard enforcement law, versus a secondary law, you will automatically see an increase in the number of people who adhere to the regulations in that state."
The desire to be constantly connected to mobile technology has spawned a new fear. Nomophobia is the fear of being out of mobile phone contact. But it's also understandable behavior according to Prof. Joseph Brown, "You pick up the phone because it makes you happy. You’re getting conversation that you want to have. And so yeah, you’re driving down the highway and your phone rings, it’s really hard not to reach out and grab that phone."
While texting increases the risk greatly, it is less common, connected to about three percent of crashes. Phone conversation is connected to more than 25 percent of crashes according to the National Safety Council.
Think you can multitask? Take the multitasking challenge
Even if you can, it takes time to bounce back and forth from one task to another. That's like the distraction your brain is going through if you are switching your attention back and forth from a phone conversation and the demands needed while driving.
1) Time how long it takes to write the letters of the alphabet on a line and then the numbers one through 26 on another line.
A B C D E F ........
1 2 3 4 5 6 ..........
2) Now, again writing the alphabet on a line and numbers on another line, time how long it takes to alternate writing one letter, then one number until you've written the alphabet and one through 26.
The amount of work done is the same, but most people will take longer to do the second task. “Multitasking” drains a lot of mental and physical energy, we feel like we’re productive – we worked hard and used energy so we must have produced a lot. Wrong. Just because we expend energy does not mean we are productive – it only creates and illusion of productivity.
Safe driving requires hands and eyes for obvious reasons. Just as important is the driver's mind. Prof. Brown says cognitive distraction is a familiar topic in Psychology. Prof. Brown says nearly any task the brain does requires something he calls mental gasoline. "There is a limited amount of resource that we typically call attention or attentional capacity. And you only have so much of it. So the more different things you’re doing, the less of this gasoline is available for each of those tasks, which makes you slower and more prone to errors."
What this comes down to is multitasking. Something many people feel they do well, but Prof. Brown says it comes at a cost. "You can switch back and forth between tasks and appear to be doing them fine, but what you’re doing is you’re doing them more slowly and more error-prone. But you’ve got this additional tax you’re paying for switching back and forth between the two tasks."
Switching back and forth between tasks can be costly when traveling down a road at high speed. In the average time it takes to read or send a text, four and a half seconds, a vehicle traveling at 45 miles per hour covers a distance of nearly 300 feet. The length of a football field. That short time can mean serious injury or death when a driver doesn't react to possible dangers. Prof. Brown relates it's not a vision problem, "These misses of objects, this inattentional blindness can happen when the object is right on the fovea, which is right in the middle of your visual field. It’s not an eye problem. It’s a brain problem."
Many wireless phone companies are working on making phone use safer. AT&T's "It Can Wait" campaign has been one of the highest profile. Beth Canutesen, with AT&T Nebraska says there are a few ways technology can help, "There are some apps on the Android system that you can utilize to say when you get a text that says, “I’m driving”. I’ll text you later.
"Convincing people to give up this thing that they really like doing is going to be really hard, but it really is a serious public safety issue." -- Prof. Joseph Brown, University of Nebraska Omaha Clinical Psychologist
While Rob Reynolds fully knows the impact a distracted driver can have, he also knows about the habit of using cell phones. There was a time he was the same way, "I was not only a cell phone user, I was a technology adopter. In a very short period of time, I became hyper-aware of how I was part of the problem. And how I needed to change and turn it around."
But Reynolds also says he's a perfect example of how a person can change their behavior. "I never use by cell phone for any reason, not even just to glance at it, EVER, when I’m driving. It can be done. I run two organizations. I have another job. I have four other kids. I’m a very busy person. It’s not impossible. And it’s really not even that difficult."
Reynolds wants everyone he speaks to, to know, they can't forget the information he has shared with them. Distracted driving is a choice and sometimes choices have significant impacts, "The ultimate responsibility is to drive the car. We have this unspoken contract, you and I, when we’re on the road. And you expect me to follow these basic rules. I expect you to follow these basic rules. And when neither one of us abide by those rules, it becomes a really a crisis situation."