With Thanksgiving coming tomorrow, the holiday season is already upon us, and for many that means packing up the Volkswagen and hitting the roads. Enjoy the time you spend with family, the great food and the crisp air. But before you slam the passenger-side door shut on that VW, remind yourself of one thing: don't allow distracted driving to ruin your holidays. According to Distraction.gov, the official U.S. government website for distracted driving, there are three main types of distracted driving: 1) Visual – taking your eyes off the wheel, 2) Manual – taking your hands off the wheel, and 3) Cognitive – taking your mind off what you're doing. When you toy around with your smartphone, you're doing all three.
In Seoul, where I currently live, it seems to be constant problem. Since most streets here contain little or no signage – and in some case no real name – there is an overwhelming reliance on dashboard GPS units, the big, colorful ones with paunchy LCDs. Unfortunately, these have a dual purpose, and most taxi drivers that are accustomed to their neighborhoods spend their shifts watching Korean dramas instead of tracking their movement. It's no wonder that a country so obsessed with technology would have one of the highest accident rates of all advanced economies.
It makes me think of one of my college roommates. The summer before our freshman year he had purchased a Trans-Am. It was fast, and it made the weekend trips back to the Dallas that much more bearable. Apparently, he didn't think it was exciting enough. I remember getting into the passenger seat on a jaunt to the local Walmart when I noticed a crudely constructed frame laying on the ground. I asked him what it was, and he said that he was planning to mount his PSP to the dash so he could watch movies on it as he made the trek down I-35 to Cowtown. I balked. Such ideas sound so stupid to us, yet we're all guilty of paying more attention to those tiny stationary pixels than we are to the reality that's roaring straight at us at 60 miles per hour. Perhaps it's that we're all so used to arriving safely, or perhaps it's just that we're too addicted to our devices to put them down.
For three days in October, the UAE was a safer place to drive. Traffic accidents were down 20% in Dubai and 40% in Abu Dhabi. This sudden and very surprising decrease in traffic accidents coincided with the BlackBerry outage from this past month. You see, unlike in the rest of the world, RIM stillholds substantial weight in the UAE, controlling 44% of the smartphone market share. While the connection between the outage and the decrease in traffic accidents has not be scientifically substantiated, according to police Brigadier General Hussein Al Harethi, "The roads became much safer when BlackBerry stopped working". It seems that the best way to avoid distraction is to remove it entirely.
Humorous anecdotes aside, driving while distracted (DWD) is a problem that is unnecessarily claiming people's lives. Some rather sobering statistics, taken verbatim from Distraction.gov:
- Of those killed in distracted-driving-related crashed, 995 involved reports of a cell phone as a distraction (18% of fatalities in distraction-related crashes). (NHTSA)
- In 2009, 5,474 people were killed in U.S. roadways and an estimated additional 448,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes that were reported to have involved distracted driving. (FARS and GES)
- Drivers who use hand-held devices are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. (Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)
- Using a cell phone use while driving, whether it's hand-held or hands-free, delays a driver's reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent. (Source: University of Utah)
5,747 killed. 448,000 injured. That's lot of avoidable suffering. Unfortunately, acting responsibly on your own is not enough. As is the case with any form of impaired driving, you also must also rely on the prudence of the drivers you share the road with. If you see a distracted driver, give them a wide berth; if someone you know someone who allows themself to routinely drive distracted, call them on it. You just might be doing someone else down the road the huge favor.
Gadgets are fun. They enrich our lives with entertainment, simplicity and convenience. The problem lies when that enrichment leads to addiction, and when we're unable to keep our eyes off our battery-powered bots and on the road. So next week when you're driving to Grandma's with phantom aromas of turkey teasing your nostrils, do Granny and all of your loved one's a favor, and make it a distraction-free trip.