Driving and Cell Phones Don’t Mix

This guest blog was written by Mark Ezzell, Director of the North Carolina Governor’s Highway Safety Program

Dedicated to reducing the numbers of traffic crashes and fatalities in North Carolina, the Governor’s Highway Safety Program – located administratively within the NC Department of Transportation – promotes efforts to reduce traffic crashes in North Carolina and promotes highway safety awareness through a variety of grants and safe-driving initiatives.

Distracted driving is nothing new. Since the invention of the automobile, drivers have been distracted by eating in the car, listening to the radio, talking with other passengers and other things.

But here’s what IS new- a handheld distraction delivery system called a cell phone, designed to instantaneously provide us phone calls, texts, news alerts and even games as quickly and regularly as possible.

These distractions make concentrating on any complex task, including driving, very difficult. Studies consistently show that drivers overestimate their own ability to safely multitask, even as they worry about the dangers of others doing it.

Distracted driving, including use of handheld cell phones while driving, causes many auto crashes. There were 2,841 fatalities in distraction-affected crashes nationwide, or 7.8% of total fatalities in 2018. So far this year, 43 people in North Carolina have been killed in crashes caused by distracted driving- and it’s only May. The actual number is likely much higher because distracted driving remains underreported.

The NC Governor’s Highway Safety Program (GHSP) works to prevent traffic crashes by coordinating and funding projects and campaigns to promote safe driving behaviors. Our “Booze It & Lose It” and “Click It or Ticket” campaigns were created through a partnership with insurance companies, law enforcement and safety professionals at GHSP, and those campaigns have helped drive down impaired driving deaths and increase seat belt use rates considerably.

But mobilizing a similar effort to decrease distracted driving is tougher because our laws are so weak. Our state law prohibits texting while driving, but other forms of cell phone use while driving are allowed for adult drivers.

This loophole makes many officers reluctant to charge for an offense that is so difficult to prove. How can law enforcement a tell that a person is texting as opposed to making a phone call? It also confuses drivers. Is using an app illegal? How about onboard GPS devices?

All across the country, states are passing laws are simple and clear: no cell phone use while driving. While specifics vary, these “handsfree” laws generally prohibit making or receiving calls, reading or sending texts, or any other activity that requires drivers to hold the phone in their hand while driving. As of this year 21 states, including surrounding states such as Virginia, Georgia and Tennessee, and the District of Columbia have passed handsfree laws.

Preliminary reports and research show these laws result in fewer distracted driving crashes and deaths. In Georgia, the Highway Patrol reported 11 percent fewer traffic crash fatalities in 2018 than in 2017, when the handsfree law was passed.

A comprehensive handsfree law is not a total fix,  as driving is complex and requires our full attention in order to be done safely.

Distractions like screaming kids, reaching for your morning coffee, adjusting onboard technology and even conducting handsfree calls via Bluetooth can divide a driver’s attention. But data show handsfree laws work, especially when coupled with robust public awareness campaigns and high visibility enforcement efforts. GHSP can serve as a partner with the insurance industry to develop a comprehensive education and compliance effort educating North Carolinians about distracted driving issues.

An automobile is basically a 2000-pound guided missile. Piloting this missile down the freeway is complicated. It’s made even more complicated today, with so many distractions (including the emotional distraction brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic) to take our attention away from the road. We have a responsibility to lessen those distractions as much as possible.

GHSP has partnered with the insurance industry to help address major traffic safety problems such as impaired driving and low seat belt use. We look forward to again working with our partners in this industry to make distracted driving a thing of the past.

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