By Francis M. Smith
For years,a common rallying cry used in efforts to raise public awareness about the dangers of distracted driving, especially involving the use of mobile devices, has been, “Hang up and drive!” While the intent behind this slogan remains as relevant as ever, the language may be due for an update, based on roadside surveys conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. While distracted driving involving the use of cell phones remains a major contributing factor to deadly automotive collisions, the manner in which drivers are interacting with their mobile devices has changed over the past few years.
Cell phones have been used for more than simply making calls and sending text messages since before the introduction of the touchscreen, but every day our app stores are flooded with new ways to utilize the portable computer/camera/music player/telephone in our pockets. Unfortunately, this ever-expanding range of new applications provides a growing source of temptation – and distraction – for drivers. According to IIHS surveys, drivers are spending less time talking into their hand-held cell phones, but are more than making up for it by typing out text messages, looking up that song they heard earlier, pulling up GPS directions and getting real-time traffic reports, sending friends photos of themselves with cartoon dog ears, or trying to catch Pikachu. All of these behaviors and more fall under the heading of “manipulating a cell phone,” a type of driver distraction that has been on the rise in the past few years, compared to other forms of hand-held mobile device usage, which have been declining in the same span.
Obviously, drivers shouldn’t be messing with their phones at all while behind the wheel, so how much does it matter whether they’re talking or doing something else? As it turns out, the difference between talking and otherwise manipulating a cell phone is significant. Drivers talking on a cell phone tend to focus their gaze in the center of the road ahead of them, making it harder to notice details at the periphery of their vision (such as vehicles, pedestrians, or animals about to enter their path), and have a harder time consciously registering what they’re seeing. Conversely, when drivers manipulate their smartphones in other ways, such as texting, browsing the internet, or using other phone apps, they generally take their eyes away from the road entirely. Distracted driving experts recognize three categories of driver distraction:
• Manual distraction, in which the driver removes his or her hand(s) from the steering wheel,
• Visual distraction, in which the driver’s eyes leave the road and mirrors to look at something else, and
• Cognitive distraction, in which the driver ceases to concentrate on the task of driving and focuses his or her thoughts elsewhere.
Manipulating a cell phone, whether for texting or for some other purpose, incorporates all three forms of driver distraction, making it a more dangerous activity than simply speaking into a hand-held phone (while not discounting the dangerous distraction involved in the latter activity). According to a 2018 study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, manipulating a cell phone while driving in conjunction with any other distraction – even talking to a passenger or singing along with the radio – increases the risk of a fatal accident by 66 percent.
In 2017, a driver manipulating a cell phone was noted as a contributing factor in accidents resulting in more than 800 automotive accident fatalities nationwide. However, statistical data on the contributing factors of crash deaths generally tends to underestimate the full impact of factors like driver distraction, simply because data collection most often relies on honest self-reporting by motorists when questioned about the circumstances of the accident, or their voluntarily surrendering their mobile devices to be inspected by police. This self-reported data can provide a general picture of the impact that driver distraction connected to mobile device usage has on auto fatalities, but the full truth of the matter is undoubtedly more severe than these surveys indicate.
It should be emphasized that any form of driver distraction – any activity that takes a driver’s thoughts, visual attention, or hands away from the task of driving, however briefly – increases the risk of getting into a serious or even fatal accident. A second’s inattention may cause a driver to miss the flash of brake lights on the car ahead, or the shape of a deer on the verge of darting into the road. However, mobile devices create substantial and entirely unnecessary sources of distraction for motorists, with new distractions constantly developed and available for free on the app store. While the old admonition, “Hang up and drive!” may not be as applicable to the current environment of cell phone use, the spirit of the advice still resonates.