What You Should Know About Cell Phones and Driving

It has only been sixteen years that cell phones have been commercially available for consumers, yet since that time we have had a love affair with them. We keep them closer than we do our loved ones, they are with us more consistently than our wallets or purses, and few people ever turn them off. The ringing of a cell phone so frequently disturbs meetings, movies, and meals that it has become standard for restaurants, theaters, and speakers to request that cell phones be silenced.

But there is one place that using your phone becomes more than discourteous - it becomes dangerous, even deadly.

Responding to an April 2011 survey by Consumer Reports magazine, "almost two-thirds of the survey respondents had seen drivers in other vehicles texting on a cell phone or other mobile device, just in the previous 30 days. Almost all-94%-had observed motorists talking on a handheld phone.

Even more sobering, the increase in texting while driving is estimated to have caused more than 16,000 additional road fatalities between 2001 - 2007 according to research published in the American Journal of Public Health. And in 2009, the most recent year with available data, 18% of the 5,474 driving accident deaths involved the use of a cell phone according to the Department of Transportation.

Among Consumer Reports’ survey respondents, 63% of those under 30 years of age reported using a handheld phone while driving within the previous 30 days and almost 33% had texted while driving. This compares to 41% and 9% respectively, of respondents who are 30 or older.

Confirming that adults aren’t modeling better behavior, teens say their parents are also texting behind the wheel.  "The frequency of teens reporting parent cell phone use behind the wheel in our focus groups was striking, and suggested, in many cases, that texting while driving is a family affair" was the conclusion of a Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project report released in Nov. of 2009.

Knowing the risks isn’t changing behavior

Though 90% of all Consumer Reports’ survey respondents felt that texting while driving is very dangerous, and nearly 50% considered using a handheld phone very dangerous, almost a quarter of all respondents said it did not lead them to reduce or stop these behaviors. This finding is supported by a 2009 study by the National Organizations for Youth Safety (NOYS) and The Allstate Foundation that found that despite the recognition of the danger, 83% of teenagers admit that they talk on a cell phone while driving and 68% admit to texting while driving.

Sobering as Consumer Report’s finding of nearly 25% of users not changing behavior, the flip side is that 78% of respondents said they had reduced or stopped behaviors related to distracted driving. The factors that were most influential in getting users to stop were laws that ban cell phone use, media campaigns, witnessing or knowing someone involved in a distracted driving accident, and being urged by family to stop.

Fortunately, teens suggested several ways to reduce distracted driving when asked by the Consumer Reports’ researchers. Among their suggestions:

  • "Make it safe and acceptable to pull over to do such tasks."

  • "Stiffer penalties, parents applying consequences for minors, and more education/awareness programs."

  • "Adults don’t discipline like it’s a problem; parents are blind to it. They tell us do not drink and drive, but don’t say do not use the phone."

  •  "Parents should let us kids have a Bluetooth headset so we wouldn’t be tempted to use our phones and take a hand off the steering wheel."

  • "I know that my friend texts a lot while she’s driving, but whenever I’m in her car, I make her give me the phone and tell me what she wants me to write. …Peer pressure is such a powerful force when you have it in your corner."

There’s a theme running through these teen’s remarks, and that theme is parental involvement. Talking to teens about the risks, that using phones while driving isn’t allowed, and applying consequences. We could add to that list the suggestion that parents become role models by refraining from using their phones while driving – or at least by getting Bluetooth headsets, or Bluetooth enabled cars to keep the talking hands free.

The American Journal of Public Health article provides this conclusion: "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. Legislation enacting texting bans should be paired with effective enforcement to deter drivers from using cell phones while driving."

Parents, you are the first line of enforcement.

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