By Charles Wilmer, M.D. MAA President-elect, and Natalie Wilmer
Handheld smartphones â€“ i.e., smartphones that the driver is able to touch while a vehicle is in motion â€“ pose the greatest and most unprecedented form of danger ever seen on the road.
And smartphone ownership is growing. In 2011, 52 percent of drivers reported owning a smartphone, and by 2014 that number had grown to 80 percent. The greatest increases in smartphone ownership are among adults age 40 and older.[i] However, our nationâ€™s youth are catching up, and their numbers are growing.
Distracted driving activities include things like using a cell phone, texting and eating. Using in-vehicle technologies (such as navigation systems) can also be sources of distraction. While any of these distractions can endanger the driver and others, texting while driving is especially dangerous because it combines all three types of distraction. (Text messaging requires visual, manual, and cognitive attention from the driver.)[ii]
Drivers allowed to manually operate a smartphone when driving are killing the innocent drivers next to them. When texting, the average time your eyes are off the road is five seconds. When traveling at 55 mph, that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field blindfolded.[iii] It is not surprising then that distracted drivers veer out of their lane and into oncoming traffic.
At any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, a number that has held steady since 2010.[iv] A quick look at YouTube shows multiple examples of the tragedies that ensue.
Distracted driving is killing more people in Georgia, every year. More than 1,559 people died on Georgiaâ€™s roads in 2016. Thatâ€™sÂ 127 more than in 2015, and 389 more than in 2014. Twenty-five percent more people died in Georgia in 2016 compared to 2014 because of distracted driving.[v]
The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) found 74 percent of the above accidents were directly tied to the driverâ€™s behavior, often texting and driving. Sixty-five percent of the accidents were also caused by the driver failing to stay in their lane. In comparison, only 39 percent of fatalities had to do with car occupants not wearing any seat belts, according to GDOT.[vi]
These fatalities do not even take into account those â€œnon-fatalitiesâ€ in distracted-driving crashes, people who are never able to live a normal life as the result. Thousands of Americans struggle with back pain caused by motor vehicle accidents due to distracted driving, many of whom were the innocent victim.
Other states are enacting laws to prevent these fatalities and life-altering injuries.
- Talking on a handheld cellphone while driving is banned in 14 states and the District of Columbia.[vii]
- The use of all cellphones by novice drivers is restricted in 37 states and the District of Columbia.[viii]
- Text messaging is banned for all drivers in 46 states and the District of Columbia.[ix]
For example:[x] In 2016, the Massachusetts Senate passed a bill banning the use of handheld cellphones while driving. The bill, S.2093, requires anyone who wants to use a phone while driving to use hands-free technology to both dial a number and to talk. The bill prohibits a driver from holding a phone while talking, inputting an address into a GPS, or composing or reading an electronic message.
The fines would be $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second offense and $500 for a third offense. These are the same fines that currently exist for texting while driving. There is an exception in case of an emergency.
When comparing data from other states or countries that have a handheld device ban, the U.S. appears to have the biggest death wish when it comes to driving while using cellphones, with Europe close behind. European governments are responding to the challenge with increasing fines and jail time. In London, the fine for a first-time offense is approximately $300 dollars and 6 points â€“ the loss of a driverâ€™s license for a young driver.
This proposal is meant to save lives by banning the physical use of smartphones while the vehicle is being driven, not removing the use of cell phone capabilities (such as verbal communication and maps). The use of smart phones for non-physical capabilities (e.g phone calls, navigation, etc.) is still allowed via Bluetooth technology or verbal commands.
Fatalities and recklessness related to distracted driving is primarily the result of someone taking their eyes off the road to physically hold and operate a smartphone, resulting in loss of vision for the length of a football field while operating a two-ton missile. That is what needs to change. Unless there is a law in place that allows police to cite people for touching their phones while the vehicle is in operation, people will not voluntarily change what they find easy until they or a loved one are involved in a life-altering collision due to distracted driving.
Some of my patients have asked why doctors do not stand up for the safety of their patients and stop this carnage. I have come face-to-face with this issue myself. We lost one of our finest physicians this past year due to a distracted driver who ran over him while he was biking with friends. His wife lost a husband, his children lost their father, and the community lost one of their best physicians. More than 3,000 patients will be forced to find another doctor, never again to see the one they loved for so many years.
The time to act is now at hand. Let us be bold to realize our weakness with cellphones and put them down before another tragic loss of life occurs. It may just save our life or that of a loved one.
[ii] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Facts and Statistics. [cited 2016 Feb 23]; Available from: http://www.distraction.gov/stats-research-laws/facts-and-statistics.html.
[v] http://www.dot.ga.gov/DS/SafetyOperation/DAAA – calculation done compared 1559 deaths in 2016 to 1170 deaths in 2014.