By Barb Thoman, Executive Director
Over 900 people gathered in Duluth in mid-November for the Toward Zero Deaths Conference focused on improving safety on Minnesota roads. The conference brings together law enforcement, state and local transportation practitioners, safety advocates, and providers of emergency medical services. The keynote speaker, Dr. Paul Atchley, Director of the Cognitive Psychology Program at the University of Kansas, gave a sobering presentation on distracted driving.
Atchley noted that drivers who are talking on a cell phone while driving are four to five times more likely to get in a crash; texting is even more hazardous. Atchley said people can't multi-task, they simply task-switch. This means that when someone uses a cell phone while driving, their brain reduces its focus on the complexity of driving and effectively narrows their field of vision.
Research shows that cell phone use while driving has an even higher incidence of causing a crash than drinking and driving. Atchley said cell phone users have little awareness of impairment and are even more likely than drunk drivers to simply drive off the road or into the back of another vehicle (or a bicyclist or pedestrian).
The 2014 Toward Zero Deaths Conference drew nearly 1000 attendees focused on improving safety on Minnesota roads. Photo credit: TLC.
Distracted driving is not limited to cell phone use. Another TZD conference presenter, Vijay Dixit, spoke about his 19-year-old daughter who died as a passenger in a car crash after the driver, her college friend, reached for a napkin. Any action that takes a driver’s attention away from the road can be dangerous. The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration suggests, however, that because texting requires a driver’s visual, manual, and cognitive attention it is a particularly high-risk distraction.
Distracted driving poses great risks for the most vulnerable road users: people walking and bicycling. Bicyclists and pedestrians lack the protection that a vehicle—with its many airbags and safety features—provides a motorist. A recent tragic example is the death of young mother Andrea Boeve who was bicycling in rural Rock County, Minnesota, this summer when she was struck and killed by a distracted driver. The driver was using his phone at the time of the crash.
Despite cell phone use being linked to one of every four crashes, Dr. Atchley noted that the United States and individual states, including Minnesota, have weak laws and weak enforcement about cell phone use behind the wheel. Existing laws are notably weaker than laws pertaining to drunk driving.
What can you do? Silence the phone and keep it out of reach when you are driving a vehicle (or riding a bike or walking across the street); encourage others to do the same. Support stronger laws and enforcement pertaining to distracted driving.