Distracted Driving: It’s Dangerous And Mostly Illegal, So Why Do We Do It?

Not a full four months into the year, and my wife’s car — cars now, since one was totaled — has been struck by careless drivers. In both cases, the law and insurance companies found the other drivers at fault.

On my way to the office this week, two people tried to switch into my lane without noticing me there, while another started to turn left on a flashing yellow arrow while I had the green light, almost causing a third no-fault-of-our-own accident.

All this, and we’re not even 33 percent into 2014!

It’s hard to put accurate numbers on whether distracted driving is causing more accidents 1than before, but if you ask anyone in my family, we’d say a resounding, “Yes!”


So Why Do We Do It?

Scott W. Campbell, Pohs Professor of Telecommunications and Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan, recently took aim at this very question in a blog for Huffington Post.

According to Campbell, habit, or “automatic behavior,” stands out as a stronger predictor of texting while driving than more conscious considerations, like attitudes and norms.

“If this trend continues to hold in the research then strategies for addressing the problem of distracted driving should include a focus on countering the cognitive processes associated with forming, maintaining and breaking habits, while being sensitive to the ways they play out in the context of mobile communication,” Campbell said.

He also said he’s noticing, in his own research, “that users oftentimes experience a shift from low consciousness to very high consciousness while engaging with their mobile devices. After reflexively reaching for it, they sometimes become immersed in what they are doing, which has serious consequences for distracted driving. So there is need to understand both less conscious and more conscious engagements with the technology in addressing the question of why (some) people put themselves and others at risk while driving.”

“The good news,” Campbell notes, “is that the problem of distracted driving has gained a great deal of visibility in recent years. Initiatives … are heightening awareness of, and knowledge about, the risks of mobile phone use while driving. But we haven’t turned the corner yet in getting people to stop doing it. Digging deeper into the fundamental reasons why it still happens might be one way of getting us there.”


Increased Visibility

A recent study from Allstate took aim at all the ways our phones distract us while behind the wheel. According to those findings, texting and talking on the phone were the two biggest contributors.

More than one-third of drivers freely admitted to having sent a text message while behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. Of the 35 percent, 27 percent said “sometimes” while five percent admitted to doing so “frequently and three percent said “always.”

One in two motorists said they were guilty of speaking on the phone while driving with 35 percent saying “sometimes,” 12 percent “frequently,” and three percent “always.”

While more individuals in Allstate’s survey demonstrated a greater propensity for talking on the phone, only 53 percent found it to be a contributing factor to distracted driving compared to 80 percent who blamed texting (49 percent, in each case, said “both” were major contributing factors, hence the percentage being over 100).

Yet we continue to do it.

But at least these “calls to arms” against distracted driving are making a big difference legislatively.

In 41 states, there are laws against texting while driving. New Mexico is set to become No. 42 should Governor Susana Martinez sign new legislation on Sunday afternoon banning it (which she is expected to do).

According to Insurance Journal, the New Mexico proposal would target more than just texting while driving, also extending prohibitions to checking/sending email and making Internet searches from smartphones and other handheld wireless devices.

The bill would impose a $25 fine for a first violation and $50 for additional violations. It would also make exceptions for acts like summoning medical or emergency help.


In Summary

Unfortunately, we can’t know just how many accidents and fatalities happen each year as a result of distracted driving. The incidents lend themselves to sketchy reporting. But sharing the road with other drivers — all of whom are unpredictable — is demanding on your senses. You take your eyes and ears off the road at your own risk. And in that brief moment, your life — and the lives of those you love — can change forever. While legislating against distracted driving is a start, the only way to truly prevent it, is to become a more involved driver. Good luck, and stay safe!

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