THE BLOG
11/11/2013 10:27 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Is Distracted Driving Undoing The Seat Belt?

Looking back on various innovations, many lives have been saved since key inventions

The seat belt.

Seems like a simple enough invention. But this simple invention has saved thousands of lives -- lives that may not have been saved but for the concerted efforts of automakers and lawmakers.

Invented by an English engineer in the early 19th Century, the idea of the seat belt was improved upon in the 1950s by a California doctor who invented a retractable one. But it wasn't until the 1960s that some auto manufacturers began installing the seat belt as standard equipment. Then in 1968, Congress mandated all automakers begin installing seat belts in the new cars they produce. Seat belts have been credited with saving tens of thousands of lives in the last 55 years. Just in the last eight years, since nearly every state has adopted a primary or secondary seat belt law, the number of lives saved has spiked. In 2013 we will likely see a record low when it comes to highway fatalities.

That is great news right?

Of course it is. Seat belt usage is approaching 90 percent nationally, highway safety engineers are building safer roads and police officers are being more prescriptive in their enforcement. However, one behavior is getting worse -- distracted driving.

Distracted driving is causing more injuries and deaths on our roadways than impaired driving. How low would our highway fatality numbers be with more attentive drivers?

In Kentucky, almost 44 percent of all crashes are caused by distracted driving. And when you consider that when "distracted driving" or "cell phone" is listed on the police report it must be self-reported by the driver or witnessed by others, it's not hard to imagine the percentage of distracted driving is much worse. Some have estimated that this percentage could be as high as 70 percent.

As highway safety professionals, we can't speculate. We can make the assumption the percentage is underreported, but at the end of the day we study our data and look at the trends. Unfortunately, the trend line has increased in the area of distracted driving with cell phone usage being the forerunner.

This is no surprise since there are more wireless connections in the United States than citizens. I know in my house we have three iPhones, one iPad and three iPod Touches (for six people). I can see why young people can't put their phones down. Kids start out around age 6 with the iPod Touch then gravitate toward the iPad mini or iPhone, and then as soon as you know it, they are driving. They have always had these electronic devices tethered to their bodies somehow.

One thing we have to avoid as a society is looking at the teen population and saying "your texting and driving is an epidemic" and then turning around and replicating the same dangerous activity. I recently asked a group of 60 leaders if seeing a driver texting while driving made them angry. Almost everyone raised their hands. Then I asked how many of you do the same? Half still had their hands raised.

So it's not just the teen driver or younger drivers who are perpetuating this problem. I just hope by the time these teens are adults and have kids of their own they don't say, "How come we waited so long to solve this problem?"

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Harvard School of Public Health in an effort to call more attention to the dangers of texting while driving. Distracted driving is the cause of 350,000 crashes per year, and the series will be putting a spotlight on efforts being made to combat the crisis by the public and private sectors and the academic and nonprofit worlds. In addition to original reporting on the subject, we'll feature at least one post a day every weekday in November. To see all the posts in the series, click here; for more information on the national effort, click here.

And if you'd like to share your story or observation, please send us your 500-850-word post to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com.