Over a decade ago, I worked 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 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.

This 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. I once got a ride from a gentleman in a Mercedes sedan. I got in and thought to myself that this would be a comfortable ride for a change — that is until we hit the on-ramp to the HOV lanes at 95 mph … and he started talking on his cellphone.

Despite the interior temperature registering 67 deg. F, I literally sweat out a gallon of water on that ride into the city. The driver was blasting down the highway at breakneck speed while yakking mindlessly on his cellphone. We ‘slugs’ could not say anything to the driver, however, as that's one of the rules of ‘slugging’ as it's called. The passengers 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 has found that 87% of motorists today rate texting or emailing while driving as a very serious threat, ranking almost even with drunk driving.

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

Distracted driving was also near the top of the list for motorists, with 80% 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, while more than half of those who admitted to reading or sending text messages or emails while driving indicated they were much more likely to have an accident.

Two separate AAA Foundation surveys have shown that more than half, and as many as two-thirds, of all drivers believe using a hands-free cellphone is safer than talking on a hand-held device, 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 email 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 cellphone I'm somehow safer.’”

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