On Jan. 19, 2004, a cell phone distracted driver changed my family forever.
As my wife was driving my son to an after school activity, a driver distracted by her cell phone conversation ran a red light and slammed into the passenger’s side of my wife’s suburban, killing our youngest son, 12 year old Joe. Losing a loved one is incredibly painful, but knowing my son’s death could have been prevented makes it almost unbearable.
Our son is one of thousands who die each year in motor vehicle crashes involving cell phone distracted drivers. It is a public health epidemic and while the issue is receiving national attention, more is needed. Distracted Driving Awareness Month (April) is a perfect time for every motorist to put safety first by pledging to drive cell free.
Advancements in technology have given us the opportunity to be constantly connected. Some believe it is expected that they are always reachable. But what if that connectivity is at the expense of others well-being? Should connectivity be prioritized over safety? Refraining from using a cell phone while driving may seem impossible to some. We’ve trained ourselves not to ignore a buzzing phone. As someone who lives to be on the bleeding edge of technology, I understand the addiction. It took losing my son and learning about the dangers of cell phone distracted driving before I changed my habits. I can assure you, the risks greatly outweigh the benefits.
Drivers using cell phones are four times as likely to crash. Sending or receiving text messages increases crash risk by at least eight times. No text, no conversation, no status update or email is worth putting your life, or another person’s life, in danger.
Sadly, many people still believe using a hands-free device eliminates risk. They couldn’t be more wrong. More than 30 studies indicate hands-free devices offer no safety benefit, because drivers talking on cell phones – handheld or hands-free – are cognitively distracted. The mind focuses on the cell phone conversation and less on the task of driving. The brain can filter OUT up to 50 percent of the cell phone distracted driver’s environment, which is what happened to the driver who caused the crash that killed my son. Witnesses said she was looking straight out the windshield, and she never applied her brakes as she sped through the red light and hit my wife’s vehicle. She may have “looked” but she did not “see.”
People need to understand that multitasking is a myth. The brain cannot handle two cognitively demanding tasks simultaneously. Instead, the brain shifts from one task to the other and one task becomes primary, the other secondary. This juggling between cognitively-demanding tasks causes inattention blindness. That’s when drivers miss important cues such as stop lights, slowing traffic, pedestrians, people on bicycles, etc. Vehicles become lethal weapons when drivers experience cognitive distraction.
Chapel Hill, NC, recently became the first city in the nation to pass a total ban – handheld and hands-free. The law takes effect June 1 and should be a touchstone for future legislation.
While laws are important, change will not occur without more education. Education begins with every driver. Companies can take a leadership role by protecting their employees with corporate cell phone policies. Individuals can take action by helping to change the social acceptance of this behavior – inform people who call you that you’ll talk once they’ve reached your destination. Change your voicemail greeting to alert callers that you don’t answer your phone while driving. Simple steps like that can and will have an impact. Contact elected officials and ask them to support cell phone distracted driving legislation. Share the stories of those we’ve lost in senseless crashes.
As I write this on April 12, my son Joe would have been celebrating his 21st birthday. Instead of celebrating with Joe, his mother and I will be visiting the cemetery and trying to imagine what he would have been like as a 21 year old. As long as car crashes are one of the leading causes of preventable death and injury, doesn’t it make sense that when driving a vehicle we focus first on the safe operation of that vehicle and not on a phone call, email, text or other non-driving activity? I encourage you to take the pledge to drive cell free, and do so like a life depends on it. Because it does.