Motor Vehicle Accidents – Distracted Driving, the New Drunk Driving

Motor Vehicle Accidents – Distracted Driving, the New Drunk Driving

When I was young, drunk driving did not have the stigma it has today. Police officers who pulled over a drunk driver would often follow the drunk driver home to make sure that they – the drunks! – made it home safely. I remember one incident that occurred in my home town when I was a kid. A gentleman who was known around town as a heavy drinker damaged his car while pulling out of a restaurant parking lot after “last call”. As a result, his car would only travel in reverse. He attempted to drive home from the restaurant in reverse. He was pulled over by a local cop who literally escorted this man to his driveway while the man drove drunk backwards. It became the talk of the town. A lot of people thought it was funny. The drunk driver was considered “a character”. This was in the late 60’s or early 70’s, and the designated driver didn’t exist. At that time, there was relatively little social stigma attached to drunk driving.

Due to the work of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other similar organizations, all of that has changed. Drunk drivers are now almost universally seen for who and what they are – a menace to society who should be prosecuted, not protected, by law enforcement. Nobody thinks drunk driving is funny anymore.

Distracted drivers, those who talk on the phone, read e-mails, send text messages, program their GPS units while driving, should likewise be recognized for who and what they are – a major public health hazard along the same lines as drunk drivers.

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Imagine a parent who properly educates his or her children on the dangers of drunk driving, and who would never consider driving after drinking alcohol. That same parent might not think twice about reading e-mails or sending text messages while driving home from work. Young adults who are careful to appoint a designated driver every time they go out on the town think nothing of talking on the phone, texting or surfing the net while driving.

Passenger vehicles now come equipped with all sorts of things that can distract a driver. Most of these gadgets were unimaginable a short time ago. Remember when the options were no radio, an AM radio or the “deluxe” AM/FM radio? Now family vehicles have GPS units that talk, telephones, elaborate sound systems and even DVD players and video game screens. It is now routine for a mom to drive a car full of kids to a soccer practice with a cell phone plastered to one ear, listening to the GPS for directions with the other ear, while music is blasting from an iPOD and a movie or video game is playing on the video screens. That same mom would never dream of having a couple of glasses of wine before getting behind the wheel of the car. But the distractions she is creating may make her every bit as unfit to drive as if she’d spent an hour in a corner bar.

Emerging data indicates that distracted drivers deserve the same social stigmatization that drunk drivers receive. In September 2009, the US Department of Transportation held a two day “Distracted Driving Summit”. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was the keynote speaker. He labeled those who text while driving “a menace to society.” The data released by the government at this summit indicate that distracted drivers caused 5,800 deaths and over a half million injuries in 2008 alone. The data indicated that drivers under 24 years of age were the worst offenders, but that distracted driving was a growing problem across all age groups. LaHood correctly pointed out that this rapidly growing problem will not be eradicated by legislation alone. He stated that the best approach to eradicate distracted driving is a combination of “strong laws, tough enforcement and ongoing public education.” In other words, the same approach used to combat drunk driving.

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There are statutes and ordinances outlawing the use of handheld devices and texting in 18 states and many cities across the country. However, driving under the influence has been “against the law” for many decades. It was only when public education changed public opinion toward drunk driving that behavior changed on a societal basis. When it was no longer funny or cool to drive drunk, teens and adults alike embraced the notion of the designated driver. The same type of social pressure needs to be directed toward distracted drivers. It is time for all of us to view the drivers we see clicking away on a blackberry for what they are – an accident waiting to happen.