In the two decades since mobile telephone use became widespread, the problem of distracted driving has grown exponentially. The earliest cell phones only allowed the making and receiving of calls, and even at that point, people pointed out that fumbling with dialing or answering the phone, or even merely having an animated conversation while driving, increased the risk of collisions.

Text messaging further increased concerns, but distracted driving truly emerged as a danger with the advent of modern smartphones. These devices join text messaging and telephone technology with social media apps, cameras, streaming music, and GPS systems, providing a smorgasbord of alluring distractions. 


Distracted Driving Statistics 

Statistics reflect the danger. In 2017, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 4,000 people died in car wrecks in the United States where distracted driving was a factor. This figure includes drivers and passengers in vehicles as well as pedestrians and bicyclists struck by distracted drivers.

The damage of distracted driving goes beyond people killed. Injuries from distracted driving collisions are far higher in number than fatalities, and property damage caused by such wrecks adds up to millions of dollars per year.


Preventing Distracted Driving

It is important to recognize that distracted driving existed before mobile telephones, and statistics include collisions caused by fumbling with vehicle controls, eating, and other activities, and attention diverted by passengers or animals in vehicles. However, phone usage is by far the largest factor in distracted driving collisions in the 2010s.

Technology has attempted to help solve the problems it has created. Most modern smartphones include “car mode”, which limits use to a few functions controlled by large, easy-to-see buttons or voice activation. Some even use GPS to recognize that the phone is in a moving vehicle, and automatically block incoming texts and calls. However, for these to be effective, users have to realize that they are there and learn to use them effectively.

Another avenue of prevention is using the law to penalize distracted driving. No state currently prohibits all cell phone use by drivers, although some states specify that new drivers (student drivers or novice license holders) and/or school bus drivers cannot use mobile phones at all. 

As of 2019, nineteen U.S. states, plus Washington D.C., Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands have “hands-free” laws. This allows drivers to use cellphones but not hold them in their hands while doing so. Specific requirements of the laws vary from state to state, including the definitions of “hands-free” usage, the penalties, and whether the law specifies primary enforcement (a police officer can initiate a traffic stop if they see a driver using a cell phone) or secondary enforcement (the offense is only cited if the officer observes it along with another primary offense such as speeding or running a red light).


Responsible Cell Phone Use While Driving

Multiple studies using simulators have found that all distractions pose a serious safety risk while driving. This includes not only mobile phone usage but doing anything other than concentrating on driving tasks.

Moreover, in simulator tests, the hands-free operation does not significantly reduce distraction. “Hands-free” laws are a compromise due to resistance from the public and lawmakers alike to the idea that cell phone usage while driving should be completely banned, but it is unclear that these laws will actually reduce risk or increase safety.

To be truly responsible with your mobile devices while driving, you should not use them at all. If you need to use GPS functions to navigate, set your route before beginning to drive, and pull off the road if you have to make any changes. If you are streaming music or listening to audiobooks or podcasts, make your choices before leaving and resist the temptation to operate the controls at all while driving. Set calls to go to voicemail, and turn off ringers and other alerts.

Remember that you are still operating your vehicle when stopped at a red light, or when traffic is moving slowly or stopped. It is still unsafe (and in many states illegal) to pick up or otherwise operate your phone in these situations. You should only use it while the vehicle is parked.

If you have teenagers, they will be as tempted as you are to use their phones when driving. It is not enough to tell them not to do it or punish them if you catch them in the act. From the time your children are small, explain the importance of safety with mobile phone usage in vehicles, and model that safe behavior for them. 

Smartphones are small devices packed full of distracting temptations, and it’s really difficult to resist using them while driving, especially when you can justify it to yourself as “just this one quick thing” or “GPS isn’t really using my phone.” But it’s important and even lifesaving to stay disciplined.

It may help to remind yourself that every other driver is as tempted as you are, and many of them are giving in to that temptation and making themselves dangerous. You need to keep focused if only to watch out for them!


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