Health News
Health News
April 9, 2019
Distracted Driving is Deadly

April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, a time to focus on a growing, deadly threat to public safety.  In 2016, distracted driving was responsible for the deaths of 3,450 Americans.  Nationally, nine people die and more than 1,000 are injured every day due to distracted driving.  There are more than 3,000 fatalities on Texas roads each year and many of those are attributed to distracted drivers.  And sadly, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers. 

“Even with improved safety features in today’s vehicles, motor vehicle collisions are extremely dangerous and will often result in serious traumatic injuries,” says Dr. Brittney Culp, a trauma surgeon.     “It’s not unusual to see disfigured faces, internal bleeding and broken legs, among other very serious conditions,” adds Dr. Ryan Balogh, also a trauma surgeon.  “And of course, some people won’t survive a collision at all.  Distracted driving is often a major factor in these types of cases.” 

Don’t Text and Drive 

As use of cell phones has become virtually universal over the last two decades, the potential for driver distraction has dramatically increased, as well.  Texting while driving is one of the most dangerous things a driver can do, increasing the likelihood of a collision that results in injury or death.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines distracted driving as any one or more of the following types of distraction:

  • Visual: Taking eyes off the road
  • Manual: Taking hands off the steering wheel
  • Cognitive: Taking the mind off of driving

“Any one of these distractions puts the safety of the driver, passengers and other motorists at risk,” says Dr. Travis Crudup, a general surgeon.  “Texting is particularly dangerous, as it involves all three distractions – to send or read a text, you’re taking your eyes off the road, hands off the wheel and you have stopped focusing on the one thing you should be solely focused on: safely operating your vehicle.” 

Texas, in addition to many other states, has made texting while driving illegal – and for good reason.  “If I am driving my car at a speed of 55 miles per hour and take five seconds to glance at a text message, my vehicle will have traveled the length of a football field with my eyes off the road,” explains Dr. John Birbari, a general surgeon.  “That’s terrifying to think about and underscores why texting and driving is so dangerous.” 

Texting while driving is hazardous no mater your age.  That said, it is an especially acute problem with younger drivers.  According to CDC data, “(d)rivers under the age of 20 have the highest proportion of distraction-related fatal crashes.” A 2015 study by CDC found that 42 percent of high school student drivers reported texting while driving in the previous 30 days.

“The first thing every parent must do to help their teenager be a safe driver is to set a good example,” explains Dr. Steven Meyers, a sports medicine physician.  “If your children observe you focusing on your driving, and not allowing yourself to be distracted by technology or other things, they will be more likely to do the same once they begin driving.”  

“For parents who are preparing to have a teen driver in their home, it is absolutely essential that you establish hard and fast ground rules on safe driving,” advises Dr. Paul Gray, a general surgeon. “That includes absolutely no texting, but also no use of a cell phone at all, keeping both hands on the wheel and wearing a seatbelt at all times.  In addition, teenagers should be taught to never ride in a car with a friend who texts when behind the wheel.” 

The American Academy of Pediatrics has a sample “Parent-Teen Driving Agreement” on its website, which outlines suggested agreements that parents make with their teenage drivers. 

What about “voice to text” technology that is now offered in many new vehicles, as well as featured on most smart phones?  “While using a voice to text system would seem less dangerous than texting from a phone – because you presumably do not have to take your eyes off the road or hands off the steering wheel – there is not yet any data to suggest it is safe to use these features.  Any activity that is not related to operating the vehicle has the potential to distract the driver – and that’s dangerous,” says   Dr. Amy Burton, a pediatric endocrinologist.

Smart phone operating systems now include features to reduce driver distractions.  Your phone can sense when someone is in a moving vehicle and automatically disable notifications for text messages and other applications.  Additionally, the user can set the phone to automatically send a reply message stating that the recipient is driving and will reply later.  It is recommended that drivers take full advantage of these important safety features.  

Talking on the Phone

Carrying on a conversation by phone while driving may not be as dangerous as texting – but it is also not considered to be safe.  At the very least, it’s a cognitive distraction, causing the driver to concentrate on the conversation at the expense of concentrating fully on the road.  Additionally, for people holding their phone while talking, that means at least one hand is not on the steering wheel.  That is one reason some cities have passed ordinances prohibiting the hand-held use of cell phones. 

Just as with voice to text technology, using a car’s Bluetooth feature to operate your cell phone is not as safe as staying off the phone altogether.  “If a driver is concentrating on a phone conversation, he or she is more likely to be distracted from their driving responsibility and may experience slower response times,” explains Dr. Triwanna Fisher-Wikoff, a primary care physician.  

Of course, talking on the phone is even more dangerous when driving conditions become more challenging.  Nighttime driving, driving through rain or other inclement weather and driving through heavy, stop-and-go traffic all require maximum concentration on the part of the driver; therefore, it is best to stay off the phone altogether.

Parents should set ground rules for their teen drivers that include a prohibition on all phone usage when driving. 

Other Distractions

It would be understandable to assume that distracted driving only became a problem when cell phones became commonplace.  And while technology is certainly a major contributor to distracted driving today, we can’t place all the blame there. 

“Probably for as long as people have been driving, they’ve been trying to multi-task behind the wheel,” observes Dr. James Parker, an internal medicine physician.  “Let’s face it – we’ve all seen people trying to eat, put on makeup or shave on their way to work in the morning.  Again, if you’re trying to do anything but operate your vehicle, you are distracted – and that makes the journey more dangerous for you, your passengers and those you share the road with.”  

Focus on the Road; Get There Safely

It’s always a good time to give up a bad habit.  If you find yourself glancing at your phone while driving, concentrating too much on phone conversations or otherwise trying to multitask behind the wheel, take a minute to think about what you’re putting at risk: your safety, your life and that of others. 

“Responding to a text message after you get to your destination safely won’t be the end of the world,” says Dr. Amber Lesley, an internal medicine physician.  “Trying to do it while you are behind the wheel could well be the end of the world for you or for someone else.  It’s just not worth it.”  

This article contains information sourced from:

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

American Academy of Pediatrics

Texas Department of Transportation