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Cell Phones Connect us…and Distract Us
8/17/2012 9:49:45 AM

Cell Phones Connect us…and Distract Us

Cell phones began by connecting us with the people by voice. Then came texting. The newest models now connect us with new sources from around the world, celebrities, and people’s awesome cats. The idea is that information is disseminated at a faster speed than ever before. And while cell phones are an unconscionable danger on the road, it’s possible that trend that makes them seemingly omnipresent will also help to eradicate their use on the road.

Drinking and driving was a veritable American past time until organizations like MADD came along and, along with tougher legislation, helped turn public perception of having a few and heading home. But that took generations.

Cell phones have only really been a major roadway danger for a decade or so, simply because their ubiquitous reach came with advances in technology. However people acquire and process new data far more readily today than in the 1960s, and already becoming consciously aware of the dangers cell phones present. However the laws, it would appear, aren’t moving much more quickly than Eisenhower’s hey day.

Consider the laws that regulate distracted driving. Compared to a drunk driving violation, which can result in a night in jail, fine, and suspended license, not to mention a long-term black eye on the offender’s record, cell phone driving laws are incredibly meek. While it’s true that in many states, texting while driving is a primary offense, meaning that if an officer spots someone texting, he or she doesn’t need to witness another traffic violation to pull the texter over. Most states enforce use of a handheld phone as a secondary offense. Some states, like Florida, don’t even have distracted driving laws!

All this even though texting, in its most simple terms, draws the drivers attention away from the task of steering a  1,500 pound hunk of metal.

Under some the harshest state laws, this incurs up to a $500 fine.

But people are starting to fear distracted drivers just as much drunk drivers, according to a California Office of Traffic Safety poll.

In the survey, respondents listed texting drivers and drivers on their cell phone as greater fears than speeding/aggressive drivers and drunk drivers. We don’t know if a single texting driver is more dangerous than a single drunk driver, but the perception is there.

The science backs up the percetion. Researchers from Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute actually quantified the level of distraction that texting drivers face. The results are stunning. TTI monitored how long drivers–some using cell phones, others focused– took to react to flashing lights that tested reaction times. The flashing lights were meant to represent an actual yellow or red light—or perhaps a pedestrian or cyclist unexpectedly crossing the street.

The undistracted reaction times were sharp: “a second or two.” However, when they gave the driver a cell phone, those reaction times doubled. It gets worse: texting drivers were eleven times more likely to miss the flashing warning lights altogether.

Researchers performed the TTI test in a controlled setting; drivers traveled on a clear, straight courese, eliminating variables. As the researchers stated in the full report “it is frightening to think of how much more poorly our participants may have performed if the driving conditions were more consistent with everyday, routine driving.”

Other studies have estimated that texting drivers can cover a whole football field without looking at the road.

It’s good to see that drivers are becoming aware of the dangers that texting while driving can pose. Now, the question is: when the laws will catch up?

Beckley Mason writes a Bay Area street safety advocacy blog for GJEL Accident Attorneys.


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