Distracted driving a growing problem

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"As mobile technology evolves at a breakneck pace, more and more people rightly fear that distracted driving – phone calls, e-mails and texting – is a growing threat on the highways.” –Peter Kissinger, AAA Foundation president and CEO

Over a decade ago, I used to work in downtown Washington D.C. and commuted by what’s known locally as the “slug line” – an informal carpool network whereby people could get a lift downtown for free while allowing the car driver to use the high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes.

Of course, this form of commuting violates one of the big golden rules my parents drilled into me as a young child (‘Don’t take car rides from strangers') but the system worked safely and efficiently for the year and a half I used it.

Yet it also provided me with endless coffee table conversation as I met a variety of drivers whose behavior behind the wheel proved, to put it mildly, frightening. Once myself and two others got a ride from a gentleman in a Mercedes sedan; I got the front seat and thought to myself, ‘This will be a comfortable ride for a change.’ That’s until we hit the on ramp to the HOV lanes at 95 mph … and he started talking on his cell phone.

Despite the interior temperature registering 67 F, I literally sweat out a gallon of water on that ride into the city – blasting down the highway at breakneck speed while the Mercedes driver yakked mindlessly away on his cell phone. [We ‘slugs could not say anything to the driver, however – that’s one of the rules of ‘slugging’ as it’s called; the drivers only speak if spoken to. If I’d had an ejection seat, though, I would’ve pulled the cord and bailed out of there.]

This is a long way of getting around to the subject at hand – a recent survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety that finds 87% of motorists today rate texting or e-mailing while driving a very serious threat – ranking almost even with drunk driving.

The information comes from the second annual Traffic Safety Culture Index compiled by the AAA Foundation an effort to spark the dialogue about improving our safety culture and working toward the goal of zero deaths on our nation's highways, says the group’s president, Peter Kissinger.

Distracted driving was top-of-mind for motorists, with 80 percent of motorists rating distracted driving as a very serious threat to their safety, the group reported. Even those who admitted to distracted driving acknowledged they were putting themselves in danger, with more than half of those who admitted to reading or sending text messages or e-mails while driving indicated they were much more likely to have an accident.

Here are some more of the findings from the 2009 Traffic Safety Culture Index survey:

• About 90% of respondents said people driving after drinking alcohol was a very serious threat to their safety; 87% said the same about text messaging or e-mailing while driving;

• Some 80% of motorists rated distracted driving as a very serious threat to their safety, yet many admitted performing distracted behaviors like talking on the cell phone or texting or e-mailing while driving within the last month;

• Over two-thirds admitted to talking on a cell phone and 21% admitted to reading or sending a text message or e-mail while driving in the past month

• Nearly 90% said that texting or e-mailing while driving was a very serious threat to safety, yet 18% of those same people admitted texting in the past month;

• Some 58% said that talking on a cell phone while driving was a very serious threat to their safety, yet 55% of those same people self-reported talking on cell phones while driving in the past month;

• Nine out of 10 people considered running a red light unacceptable, yet 26% of those same people admitted to running a red light;

• Nine out of 10 people considered tailgating unacceptable, yet 24% of those same people admitted to tailgating in the past 30 days;

• Some 63% considered speeding 15 mph or more on the highway unacceptable, yet 28% of those same people admitted doing so in the past month;

• Fully 95% of people rated speeding 15 mph or more over the speed limit on residential streets unacceptable, yet 21% of those same people admitted doing so in the past month.

A previous AAA Foundation survey found two out of three drivers mistakenly believe using a hands-free cell phone is safer than talking on a hand-held device. Yet Kissinger noted that, in this survey, the use of a hands-free cell phone was the only behavior that more than half of all drivers rated as acceptable, yet numerous other studies have shown it is equally as dangerous as talking on a hand-held phone – both quadruple your risk of being in a crash.

"There are many motorists who would never consider drinking and driving, yet they think it's somehow okay to text or e-mail while driving. We need to stigmatize distracted driving to the same degree as drunk driving in our culture, because both behaviors are deadly," he said. "This survey shines the light on drivers behaving badly; it also raises some dangerous public misconceptions. We'd like to end the belief that 'it's the other guy's problem' and end the false sense of security that 'if I chat on a hands-free cell phone I'm somehow safer.'"

In other words, everyone’s got to do their part out on the roadways in order to make them safe – and that includes focusing all of our attention on driving while we’re behind the wheel.

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