Deaths on the highway have jumped up by the largest percentage increase in 50 years – and distracted driving is to blame.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 10.4 percent more deaths in the first six months of 2016 compared to the first six months of 2015. From January to July of this year, 17,775 people lost their lives in traffic accidents on the highway, an increase of 10.4 percent. That is the largest annual increase, by percentage, in half a century.
Arguably, our roadways have become more dangerous, and much of the increase in accidents can be attributed to distracted driving. But what explains the massive jump we saw this year in traffic fatalities?
The Main Culprit Is Probably Already In Your Car
A consensus is rapidly developing among experts and researchers, and it points to increased use of technology – particularly over the last half-decade. The theory goes something like this: we have started incorporating more technology into our vehicles that create more distractions and therefore more risk for drivers and their passengers.
The theory makes sense; after all, distracted driving wasn’t really a phenomenon until the advent of the mobile phone. As mobile phones became more widespread and commonplace in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, traffic fatalities due to distracted driving also went up. It’s no coincidence, and it appears that new trends in technology come with the same consequences.
The spate of deaths caused by people calling, sending texts, and accessing apps and social media platforms like Snapchat from phones while driving caused the industry and device-makers to respond with hands-free setups, voice calling, and other innovations that allow the driver to use a phone while keeping both hands on the wheel.
Automakers, for their part, are trying to respond to this growing crisis by incorporating even more technology into their vehicles – such as the Sync system developed by Ford that allows drivers to use voice commands to make phone calls, change music, and perform other tasks. Other automakers have followed suit, and Apple and Google both have programs designed to promote hands-free interaction.
These steps, however, aren’t a perfect solution.
The Big Problem with Anti-Distracted Driving Technology
As well-intentioned as these programs may be, just adding more technology doesn’t make distracted driving any less of a problem. In fact, it’s not clear that these applications reduce distracted driving at all, and even if they eliminate the need for a driver to use his or her hands to operate technology, they still take the driver’s focus off what it should be on: the road.
The reality is simple: any use of a mobile device while driving is a distraction, even if both hands are on the wheel. According to a study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, mental distractions can last as long as 27 seconds after interacting with technology while driving.
This problem is compounded by the development of in-car Wi-Fi, new apps, dashboard GPS, touchscreen consoles, and any other piece of technology that has been incorporated into a vehicle.
As discovered in the study, distraction is caused by too much cognitive activity going on at once. Driving occupies a significant portion of our attention. Our brains can only process so much at once, and while operating a vehicle, our brains are bombarded by stimuli that can be overwhelming when paired with outside distractions.
If automated and hands-free technology can’t completely solve the problem, what can?
Solving the Distracted Driving Problem
The solutions to this scourge, from a broad viewpoint, aren’t very promising. Legislators would have to effectively not only ban drivers from using mobile phones – only 15 states plus Washington, D.C. ban hand-held cell phone use while driving – but they’d also have to target hands-free devices as well. That action would potentially open up a slew of arguments about what should and shouldn’t be banned. (As of today, no state completely bans all mobile phone use for drivers.) Due to the potential outrage that would result from lobbyists representing automakers and tech companies – not to mention public outcry from millions of drivers – legislators are reluctant to pursue that line of action, to say the least.
For now, legally speaking, driving safety advocates will have to be content with the fact that most states have outlawed arguably the most distracting of all activities that involve technology: texting while driving. The only states that don’t have anti-texting laws on the books are Arizona and Montana (in Missouri, texting is restricted only for those 21 years of age and younger, while in Texas texting is restricted very narrowly).
The law can do many powerful things, but there are some behaviors that the law can’t completely prevent. Distracted driving is one such behavior. For this reason, advocates have also turned to technology to combat technology, such as programs that lock mobile phone activity for drivers while the car is moving. Those programs are in their infancy, however, and have several problems to work out before the technology matures and becomes widely useable and feasible.
And while automated driving is viewed by some as the most ideal solution, there are significant problems with this approach that won’t be solved until the nation’s entire transportation infrastructure is redesigned and rebuilt with automation in mind – which may never happen.
Some believe change will have to come through better education and awareness. National advocacy organizations – and even some corporations, like AT&T – have run advertising and PR campaigns designed to reduce mobile phone usage while driving. These campaigns have achieved widespread visibility, but their effectiveness is questionable.
As with many problems in our society, the ultimate responsibility lies with the individual. This reality makes it frustrating for those who have been fighting against distracted driving.
For your part, examine how you use technology in your car. Identify distractions that cause you to split your attention between them and driving. Vow to avoid using your phone while you’re driving, even at stop signs and traffic lights. If each of us were to do these things, distracted driving fatalities would surely decrease.