Don’t worry. It hasn’t come to this – yet. Likely it never will, due to the intense power and pressure in Washington from lobbyists for the wireless providers and smartphone makers. But with all the research flooding in about the dangers of distracted driving due to talking and texting behind the wheel, maybe it should.
The latest research shows that even getting notifications of an incoming call, text, or email is enough to throw off your concentration on the tasks at hand. While the research didn’t specifically target drivers, it did clearly show that divided attention doesn’t work. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that you can’t be focused on that buzzing, chirping, melodic, or vibrating sound from your smartphone when you’re going 50 miles and hour down the highway in traffic.
Researchers wrote in the paper that cell phone notifications provoke “task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind-wandering,” not at all conducive to performance. It seems people have a limited capacity to split their attention between tasks. Just being aware of a missed call or text can have the same effect as actually taking or making the call or text, researchers explained.
As you’re reading this, the tendency may be to smirk and say you never do this. But, check again, reflecting on your actual driving behavior? Aren’t you tempted to snatch up that smartphone to see who’s calling or texting you – especially if you’re stuck at a traffic light that seems to stay red for much too long? In fact, a State Farm survey we reported on last November found that 59 percent of drivers they queried said they engaged in the behavior at red lights.
Our own survey in 2013 on the subject revealed that 35 percent of respondents said they either speed or multi-task while behind the wheel. While this was a couple of years ago, we can’t imagine that the percent has decreased during that time frame. If anything, it’s likely gotten worse – much worse. Just think of how many people in America have smartphones. According to Pew Research, nearly two-thirds of Americans (64 percent) own a smartphone. That’s up from 35 percent in the first quarter of 2011. Younger Americans and those with relatively higher income and education level account for especially high smartphone ownership.
Other studies have found higher percentages for the same type of situation. But the fact is that during lulls in traffic, or when cruising on the open highway, or when you’re just bored or feel like you’re somehow missing out, the temptation to use that oh-so-handy smartphone may be too great to deny.
Not to be too grim about it, but statistics do tell a fairly distressing story. Here are some of the ones that just can’t be ignored:
- 9 people are killed every day in crashes involving a distracted driver
- 341,000 motor vehicle crashes in 2013 involved texting
- 40 percent of teens say they’ve been in a car with a distracted driver using a cell phone
- 33 percent of drivers (aged 18-64) said they’d read or written text messages while driving during the previous month
- Texting is banned in 46 states (plus Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands), regardless of age
- Using a smartphone while driving doubles the risk of a crash
- 5 seconds – that’s the number of seconds drivers, on average, take their eyes off the road to send a text
- Age 21-24 – Younger drivers are the age group most likely to text or email while driving
Maybe you think all this will blow over, that concerns over distracted driving caused by smartphone use (even paying attention to those pesky notifications) will be somehow magically overcome. Maybe you’re dreaming. Likely there’ll continue to be intense debate over the benefits, consumer preferences, freedom of speech and whatnot versus the very real dangers to safety.
On the other hand, you could content yourself with the idea that in the next 15 to 20 years, give or take a few, depending on which experts you believe, self-driving cars will make all this a thing of the past. You’ll be able to sit back and not only take and make all the calls you want, email to your heart’s content, do shopping while you ride, even watch your favorite movies and TV shows – and your vehicle will drive itself with very little, if any, input from you in the process.
Maybe, but that’s a bit too far off on the horizon for consumers today.
The way we see it, there has to be give-and-take between our insatiable desire to be connected and the responsibility we need to take when we get behind the wheel. No call or text is that important that it can’t take a back seat (literally) to the task at hand. When we’re driving we need to be 100 percent focused on driving, period.
Turn off the cell phone. The messages and/or texts will be right there when you stop and turn it back on. At the very least, make the notifications silent (is there such a thing, since even a vibration can be heard by someone attuned to it).
If you absolutely have to make or take a call, pull off the road where and when it is safe to do so. Under no circumstances should you ever weave and drive erratically, too slow or too fast, and try to initiate or complete a task involving your smartphone. Not only is it not smart, it’s extremely risky.