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April 10, 2013

OUR VIEW: Distracted driving an epidemic

Electronic devices are annoying distractions at the dinner table, at the customer service counter and in the classroom.

But when you put that distraction behind the wheel, it morphs into an unnecessary, self-induced danger.

As in-dash systems with touchscreens and gizmos galore increasingly become the norm for automakers, distracted driving has swelled into a national epidemic.

It seems nonprofits and federal agencies come out of the woodwork daily to divulge new studies and statistics on the dangers of distracted driving.

One reports that text messaging creates a crash risk 23 times worse than driving while not distracted, while another finds using a cell phone while driving delays a driver’s reaction as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08.

Some of the reports are pretty eye-opening. While texting and driving, 5 seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road. When traveling at 55 mph, that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field.

This isn’t a new problem.

The National Safety Council estimates that at least 28 percent of motor vehicle crashes in 2008 – 1.6 million accidents – were due to cell phone use and texting.

That same year, the nation saw its worst train crash in 15 years. At the wheel of that crash was a man federal investigators say was texting before his crowded commuter train skipped a red light and collided head-on with a freight train.

And another high-profile case of distraction made headlines just this week. The U.S. government is investigating pilot texting in the 2011 crash of an emergency medical helicopter that killed all four people onboard.

With all this happening, it’s no wonder we continually see the passage of more and more laws and regulations aimed at keeping driver’s eyes and attention on the road.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 10 states have passed laws prohibiting all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving. Thirty-five states have banned cell phone use by novice drivers.

Here in Indiana, we have put into effect a Graduated Driver’s License law. Part of this law prohibits newly licensed drivers under the age of 18 from using telecommunications devices (i.e. cell phones to talk and text) while driving, with the exception of making emergency 911 calls.

While Legislatures across the nation continue to consider tighter restrictions on drivers, the public is inundated with awareness campaigns. From teary-eyed parents remembering their child lost to texting and driving, to a teen ravished by brain trauma unable to dress himself, the campaigns are aimed at getting the public to wake up to the danger they’re putting on themselves and countless others.

But none of it seems to be working, and the trend appears to continue to rise. A new survey from AT&T reports 49 percent of adult respondents said they text and drive. Three years ago, 6 in 10 adults said they never texted behind the wheel.

So just one question remains: What’s it going to take to make us stop texting and driving?

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