My weekend nearly got off to a disastrous start when a driver, busy texting, suddenly realized he was going to miss his exit. At the last possible moment, he slammed his brakes and surged across four lanes of traffic, avoiding the need to go a few miles out of the way – but nearly touching off a multi-car accident in the process.
We've all seen the texters, the women putting on makeup, the guys checking their sports scores. Heck, a woman in Florida recently crashed while giving herself a bikini shave. But are we experiencing, as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood puts it, "a deadly epidemic" of distracted driving – one that can only be addressed by the most draconian of new laws?
There's no question that there are some things you just shouldn't be doing behind the wheel, and few would argue against the laws that many states have passed prohibiting motorists from texting while driving. But what other steps are needed? The latest federal data on highway fatalities suggests we've probably gone far enough – and that the distracted driving debate is being marred by an overdose of hype and hysteria.
"If cellphones and all the other new technologies are so dangerous, why aren't we seeing carnage on the highways?" asks Aaron Bragman, automotive analyst with the consulting firm IHS. "We're not. The number of highway fatalities is lower than it has been in years."
Indeed, the federal government last week released data showing there were 33,808 highway deaths in the U.S. during 2010, a 3% decline from the year before. That's the lowest figure since 1949. And lest you attribute that to a downturn in driving because of economic hard times, the reality is that U.S. motorists reversed course in 2009 and have since been clocking more mileage. So, measured by that standard, there were just 1.09 deaths per 100 million miles driven last year, down from 1.13 in 2009 – and again the lowest number since Truman was in office.
You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who isn't in favor of improving highway safety, but this is a world of vested interests, each with a distinct agenda. There's Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has focused on intoxicated motorists. Insurance organizations often focus on speeding. And now there's the distracted driving lobby, as it were, with Secretary Ray LaHood at the helm.
A number of states and municipalities have already restricted the use of hand-held cellphones while driving, and there's been a flurry of regulations targeting texting.
But that's not nearly enough for proponents. The American Automobile Association, for one, would probably not be happy unless your hands were super-glued to the wheel, with a rigid frame ensuring your eyes could only look straight ahead or check the mirrors.
That organization – along with other advocates – thinks that any form of electronic communications should be barred while driving. So turn off your Bluetooth hands-free phone. And forget about that Sync system that can translate e-mails, text or stock prices into speech. Turn off that navigation system, as well. Even with the voice prompts turned on, it can be a distraction.
"People often tell me they're multi-taskers," says Jack Peet, a former law enforcement officer and now the traffic safety expert for AAA Michigan, "but driving is, itself, multi-tasking. Studies show you're making something like 200 decisions per mile. So, which 10 of those can you afford to miss? Maybe hitting the brakes when a child walks in front of your car?"
Given the chance, Peet would also ban many of the latest safety devices, like Active Cruise Control, Blind Spot Intervention and Lane Change Warning. Such devices, he contends, can make drivers lazy and inattentive.
Yet, it's hard to see where the data bear this out. Sure, today's cars are better designed, and modern emergency medical care is a lot better than it was when Truman was president. But even when you factor in the crackdown on drunk driving, it's hard to see where there's an all-out distracted driving epidemic buried in the numbers.
Louis Tijerina, a safety researcher for Ford, suggests that there's a lot of erroneous thinking based on questionable data. There are plenty of studies that will show you just how dangerous it is to try programming a navigation system or simply even holding a conversation. But there's a "big difference" between what you see in a lab setting compared to the real world, insists Tijerina, who suggests, "Simulator work may be artificially more difficult than the real world."
And, let's face it, would you rather see drivers go back to trying to interpret partially unfolded maps rather than their Tom Tom navigators?
Indeed, there's plenty of data that warns about highway fatigue. Simply staring ahead in silence can numb a driver into making potentially fatal mistakes.
That doesn't mean you should go ahead and text. And save the shave for the privacy of your own bathroom. But encouraging motorists to exhibit a little common sense – by, among other things, responding to traffic conditions – is probably a lot more effective than banning all forms of in-car electronics, especially the newest safety systems.
Besides, the police already have plenty of laws they can call on to ticket a careless or reckless driver – like the one who nearly slammed into me on I-696 – without a blanket ban on all things electronic.