Distracted Driving - 2014

An interesting set of technological solutions to the problem of distracted driving were revealed at the NOYS (National Organization of Youth Safety) 2013 Teen Distracted Driving Prevention Summit, held on September 20, 2013 in Washington DC. 1

While these tech solutions help teens avoid distracted driving, they are completely applicable to adult drivers, who are actually more likely to text and drive according to some studies.

"In a 2010 Pew Research Center survey, nearly half (47%) of adults who use text messaging (equivalent to 27% of all U.S. adults) said they had sent or received messages while driving. A 2009 survey found that 26% of 16- and 17-year-olds admitted to texting while behind the wheel." 2

Even though one of the chief causes of distracted driving is technology, which includes using a cell phone or smartphone, texting, or using a GPS navigation system, adjusting a radio or music player, loading and watching videos, and looking for CD's or DVD's to play, some of the proposed cures for this road hazard include technological solutions.

There are some safety devices already in place that have proved their worth in extra cost and effort, and are designed to help the driver regain control of their car or truck once control is lost, and these are electronic stability control anti-lock brakes. We must remember that these two devices are only useful when a driver has already somehow lost control of their vehicle. This is the end result of many forms of distracted driving, and these two software/device aids help to lessen or avoid the often dangerous or fatal results.

At the NOYS conference, Jessica Jermakian of the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) discussed crash avoidance technologies, including ESC or Electronic Stability Control. When asked by an audience member if this would make drivers more reckless, thinking that the vehicle would get them out of trouble, she pointed out that this is a basically invisible or hidden feature for drivers, meaning that it only kicks in in the rare instance when a vehicle goes out of control. 1

It must be kept in mind too that things like seatbelts, airbags, anti-lock brakes, and ESC are not infallible and that at times no matter how well designed these devices are, they will not prevent a crash or injuries.

Overcompensation of steering out of the way of a suddenly noticed obstacle is one common result of distracted driving. In this scenario, a driver may react suddenly to avoid hitting a fixed or moving object or person, and may fishtail or even roll the vehicle, especially if it is a tall SUV.

According to both the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the United States NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) one third of all fatal accidents could be prevented using Electronic Stability Control.

Electronic stability control "adds sensors that continuously monitor how well a vehicle is responding to a driver's steering wheel input. These sensors can detect when a driver is about to lose control because the vehicle is straying from the intended line of travel — a problem that usually occurs in high-speed maneuvers or on slippery roads. In these circumstances, ESC brakes individual wheels automatically to keep the vehicle under control." 3

Texting while driving is a surprisingly common practice among adult drivers (more so than teenage drivers) even though it is illegal in 41 US states. In 37 states this violation is a primary offense, meaning that you can get stopped, ticketed and fined for this offense alone. In the other 4 states, Florida, Nebraska, Iowa, and Ohio, you can be fined for texting while driving only if you are first pulled over for another violation. 2

One of the key distractions noted by both adults and teenagers of a phone in the car is the beep, chime or ring indicating that they have a new text, email, or phone call. Many people find it hard to ignore, and will think that they can just quickly see who it is that contacted them, without risk. Though this may take a driver's eyes off the road for only a few seconds, this can be dangerous enough. But the greater danger comes when the driver feels he or she must see what their friend or business contacts wrote, and then even respond to that message, which can then distract the driver for a longer period of time.

A phone app, urTXT, was developed by teenage race car driver, Zach Veach, to help combat this. This was spurred on by a distracted driving death that hit close to home for him. The app turns on or off with the click of one button. urTXT will silence the distracting beeps, and send a message to the sender that the recipient is driving and cannot or will not answer until he or she finishes driving. Messages can be personalized or users can choose from a set of prewritten responses. 1, 4

Of course, since this app does not automatically detect when someone is driving, it does not turn on automatically when driving, it is up to the driver's good sense and memory to engage it before entering the car.

Another piece of technology which debuted at the 2013 LA Auto Show was developed by Microsoft and Toyota and is called D.A.R.V. or the Driver Awareness Research Vehicle. It aims to help a driver prepare his or her ride before even entering the car, via an interactive computer screen located on the back window of the driver's side of the car, and is engaged outside of the car. This is an attempt to get things like texting, navigation, and fuel planning out of the dashboard, so that the driver is not distracted when behind the wheel. 5

Of course this solution works well in sunny southern California, but is less attractive to a Portland Oregon driver, as it would force them to stand in the rain outside their car.

Families, who strive to be good role models for their children and ensure their own safety, may choose another piece of tech designed to make answering or viewing a text message impossible or very impractical while driving their car, truck or SUV. The ORIGOSafe ignition interlock system can be installed in a car for $399 for a family vehicle, and operates by preventing the driver from holding their phone. It is a docking system which will charge the phone while driving, allows the driver to use Bluetooth to receive calls, but will sound an alarm if the phone is removed from the dock while the car is running.

The commercial version of this device for fleets and companies is available from the same manufacturer. This ensures that a company's owners do not need to worry about their drivers becoming distracted by texting or using their hands to control their phone. If the phone is removed from the docking station, an alarm will sound and the truck or car will not start until the phone is reauthorized by an administrator. There are workarounds in place so that if the vehicle is left with a valet or parking lot attendant, leant out, taken to be serviced or if the phone is lost or stolen. 4

New York state highway troopers have been given a simpler form of technology to enforce New York State's laws against texting and driving; and that is tall unmarked SUVs which enable an officer to peer down into the driver's lap to see if they are using a hand held device. This is in part due to the fact that before texting and driving laws, drivers would hold a phone up on the wheel presumably to keep their eyes on the road, ensuring a false sense of security. Now many drivers looking to bypass the law hold phones down in their laps, thinking a police officer will not notice. 7

Distracted driving public service announcements in the form of TV commercials are becoming more frequent, but PSAs can tend to be preachy or predictable. A very smart version of a PSA that was entered in a recent film competition in Ireland held by the Irish Road Safety Authority and the insurance company, Setanta, won first place and is entitled "Wheelman". It plays on the popularity of the game Grand Theft Auto, and can be seen here: http://www.autoblog.com/2013/11/23/grand-theft-auto-distracted-driving-video/

These devices, software and methods, while innovative and useful, are unnecessary if drivers simply practice good sense while driving, and realize that most accidents happen because of driver error. No technology can replace the safety ensured by a responsible, aware and focused driver. Humans tend to think that if they did something once and no bad consequences happened, they can do it again. But there's a reason accidents are called accidents, and that is that no one expects them to happen.

If you have been in an accident and you think that the other driver was distracted, please contact me for a free consultation as soon as you are able. If you know or suspect that the driver was distracted using a cell phone or texting, you will need to get evidence to support your case. Getting in touch with witnesses as early as possible is also critical for evidence while the witnesses have fresh memories of what they saw. The longer you wait after an auto accident means that critical evidence may disappear from your accident scene.