THE BLOG

Distracted, Bloody Fool!

04/01/2015 08:25 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015
Mark Wilson via Getty Images

It's almost as if James Bond was trying to warn us about distracted driving way back in 1957, when From Russia with Love was first published in hardcover.

"You bloody fool," Bond exclaimed. "Why the hell can't you take more care?"

Mr. Bond's admonition holds special resonance on this April Fools Day, which also marks the kick-off of National Distracted Driving Awareness Month. Today alone, an estimated 9 people will be killed, and over 1,000 injured, in distracted driving crashes throughout the U.S.

Texting while driving, and other forms of distracted driving, are responsible for over 1,000,000 crashes, 400,000 injuries, and 3,000 fatalities in the U.S. each year. And the numbers have barely moved over the past several years.

In public opinion surveys, large majorities say that distracted driving is a serious problem. But, behind the wheel, millions of us continue to take foolish risks. We take our eyes off the road to look up a phone number or place a call. Or, some of us up the ante, taking both hands off the wheel and using our knees to steer, while we tap out a text message on a digital device that we've hidden on our lap to avoid detection by police.

News reports are replete with stories of distracted drivers striking school children in crosswalks, pedestrians on sidewalks, troopers at road stops, bikers, road crews in work zones, and families in oncoming cars.

The problem of distracted driving will only intensify with the rapid proliferation of highly sophisticated in-car infotainment systems offering a vast array of new distractions.

Meanwhile, extensive research at Virginia Tech and elsewhere has found that when drivers take their eyes off the road for longer than 2 seconds to interact with a digital device, the risk of causing a crash or near-crash spikes 3-fold, reaching the risk level of a drinking driver with a blood alcohol level at the legal limit of 0.08.

But studies have shown that, on average, it takes a whopping 4.6 seconds -- not 2 seconds -- to type and send a text message. When traveling at 55 miles per hour, 4.6 seconds is equivalent to driving the full length of a football field while blindfolded. Everyone else is placed at risk as a "blindfolded" driver barrels down the road on a three-ton machine.

So here's a question: How tough are we as a society prepared to be to shift the perceived ratio of pain and gain in order to get "blindfolded" drivers -- including ourselves -- off the road?

So far, the answer has been, not very tough at all. Unlike a DUI offense, the message that current laws send to distracted drivers is more like "Hey, please don't!" In some states, the fine for texting while driving is the same as for an expired parking meter. In some other states, there is no fine at all.

Here are some other questions:

Should distracted driving infractions that occur in school zones, in work zones, and at police road-stops, be singled out for sharply enhanced penalties and reportable points--to save lives, to send a message, to facilitate concentrated enforcement efforts, and to disrupt the learned behavior of distracted drivers?

Should looking away from the forward direction of the vehicle for a duration of greater than two seconds -- creating a risk of bodily harm comparable to that of a DUI offense -- be enshrined in state laws as a per se distracted-driving infraction? And, would that help with enforcement?

Some have pointed out, correctly, that there's nothing new about distracted driving, and it's always taken many forms -- eating food, talking to passengers, dealing with children, reaching for an object, reading billboards, or accompanying a song on the radio. The challenge today is that the use of new technologies is sharply increasing the degree of danger, above and far beyond the longstanding, baseline level of risk. The policy question is, where are we going to draw the line?

In a head-to-head race against time, the laborious pace at which public policy evolves is no match for the Usain Bolt-like speed of technological change: For example, would a ban on handheld devices be applicable to the new Apple Watch? To remain relevant, our public policies on distracted driving may need to sidestep the specific technologies and focus instead on such measures as eyes-on-the-road. Over time, new technology will solve the distracted driving problem that technology created. Eye-tracking devices mounted on the dash or rearview mirror will monitor the driver's mental state for signs of distraction, and will sound an alarm. Eventually -- 10 to 20 years from now -- self-driving cars will enable us to text to our heart's content. But, until technology provides the ultimate fix, the carnage on our roads will continue, and may even grow worse before it gets better. But it doesn't have to.

Back in the 1980s, driving-after-drinking was a widely accepted practice that was highly resistant to change. It took a combination of aggressive advocacy efforts by groups like MADD, solid research, enactment of tough state laws, well-publicized enforcement of those laws, and high-profile media campaigns aimed at changing social norms, to slowly-but-surely turn the tide.

Over the years, hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved -- and a comparable success can assuredly be achieved against distracted driving.