Distracted Driving: We're All Guilty, So What Should We Do About It?

Nov 11, 2012
Originally published on November 11, 2012 3:02 pm

One of the most dangerous things you can do behind the wheel of your car is text or check your email. Texting and driving is illegal in 39 states, the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands and Guam.

Despite the danger, millions of us continue to do it. I am ashamed to say that I was one of them.

During the recent presidential campaign, I was on the road — a lot. I was mainly driving on rural roads in places such as Iowa, Indiana and, of course, Ohio. On several occasions I checked my email while driving, and like many people I rationalized my behavior.

"You're not the only the one," says Carroll Lachnit of Edmunds.com. "I'm loath to say it's an epidemic because that sounds so strong, but when you have a phone in the car, the temptation to use it can be pretty overwhelming."

The desire to stay connected is so great that many of us can't resist. You need only stand on any street corner and watch drivers to see just how many people are using their cellphones while behind the wheel.

Lachnit points out that there are efforts to keep the hands of drivers on the wheel with things like voice-activated software to read text messages or emails and apps that automatically respond to text messages saying, "I'm driving." The technology, however, has a long way to go.

Lachnit says that perhaps people need to start "shaming" each other more when they see people using their phones while driving.

"I give people the stink-eye all the time if I see them holding their cellphone while they're in the car," she says. "The problem is, they're not looking at me. They're looking at their damn cellphone."

Daniel McGehee, who studies distracted driving and vehicle safety at the University of Iowa, says that emailing is the "trifecta of distraction," because it takes your eyes, hands and attention off the road.

McGehee also says many of us delude ourselves by thinking that it's OK to check our email at a traffic light.

"It's not," McGehee says. "Some of the most intense distractions can come when you're stopped."

Often at stop signs, you may not be aware of pedestrians and other cars around you, and it can take time for your brain to shift from text or email mode to driving mode. One of the most common forms of crash is the rear-end collision.

McGehee says it is best to turn off or put your phone in a bag and leave it put.

"If you take a look at the kinds of things that are going back and forth, they're really unimportant," he says. "Is it really so important to send that string of messages back and forth for the last 45 seconds of your life?"

Talking to McGehee, Lachnit and others, I've come up with some tips to help avoid texting or mailing while driving.

  1. Don't distract people you know are driving: You know when your spouses or loved are commuting. Don't text or call them when you know they're on the road. "Are you here yet?" "Where are you?" Those texts and calls can be avoided.
  2. Inform your colleagues: Before I go on a trip of any length now, I let my editor know that I'll be driving for a while. I also set an out-of-office message that says "I'm on the road," when I leave my desk for a while. What this does is gives you piece of mind that you're not missing some important email. McGehee says this allows you to be responsive.
  3. Check in: It's always thoughtful to check in with your loved ones before you head home. This can avoid the need to text or call or the desire to do so.
  4. Turn the sound off on your devices: This will help you eliminate the temptation to check your email or text if you're constantly hearing the beep of the phone whenever a new message is received.
  5. Use hands-free devices: Studies have found that talking on the phone is not as dangerous as other distractions. So if you must call, use a hands-free device.
  6. Prepare before you leave: Put your coordinates into the GPS, turn to your local NPR station and set up your playlists or audio books or podcasts before you get on the road.
  7. Set reminders: I've taken to putting in the tag line of my outgoing messages from my smartphone: "This email is not worth taking your eyes off the road to read or write." So even if I find myself tempted to read and respond to a text, I remind myself that I shouldn't.
  8. Peer pressure: Everyone can do their part to remind friends and family to not text or email and drive. It seems kind of after-school special, but how many of us would let our friends drink and drive?
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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And we wrap up our coverage from the campaign trail, with a reporter's notebook from NPR's auto industry reporter Sonari Glinton. Now, Sonari knows - as well as anyone - the risks of texting and reading email behind the wheel. But he recently found himself doing exactly that.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: During the recent presidential campaign, I was on the road a lot; mainly, driving on rural road in places like Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio - of course, Ohio. And while I was driving, on several occasions, I checked my email. Now, I mainly report on cars and I really, really should know better.

CARROLL LACHNIT: You're not the only the one.

GLINTON: Carroll Lachnit is with Edmunds.com. She's one of two people I talked to about texting and driving.

LACHNIT: It's really a problem. I mean, I'm loathe to say it's an epidemic because that sounds so strong. But when you have a phone in the car, the temptation to use it is - can be pretty overwhelming.

GLINTON: Lachnit says the car companies are trying to keep our hands on the wheels. Some have put voice-activated software to read text messages or emails. But they're a long way off from perfecting that technology. She says until then, we have to make each other stop.

LACHNIT: We have to start shaming each other more, I guess. I don't know what else is going to work. I mean, I give people the stink eye all the time, if I see them holding their cellphone while they're in the car. The problem is, they're not looking at me. (LAUGHTER) They're looking at their damn cellphone.

GLINTON: Daniel McGehee studies distracted driving, at the University of Iowa. He says many of us delude ourselves by thinking, oh, if I only check my texts while I'm at the stoplight. But he says there is really no good time to text or email, while the car is in gear.

DANIEL MCGEHEE: We are seeing that people respond to text messages while they're stopped. But they may peek at those messages while they're driving. But really, the more intense distraction, sometimes, is while you are stopped.

GLINTON: McGehee says we can wait for car companies, and cell companies, to come up with solutions. But the most potent way to make the roads safer is to change our behavior.

MCGEHEE: There's been a couple of cases where, you know, reporters have crashed. And it's pretty easy to reconstruct when you've been on the phone; how many text messages - are, and even what you were texting.

GLINTON: Yeah, and like - yeah. I mean, when you said that, that just - literally, like, sent the - (LAUGHTER) - a chill through me, you know? Wow.

MCGEHEE: And if you take a look at the kinds of things that are going back and forth, they're really so unimportant. Is this really that important - to be able to send this string of messages back and forth, for the last 45 seconds of your life?

GLINTON: Yeah.

Until now, we've paid a lot of lip service to not texting and driving. But both experts say our culture needs to change. We need to make texting or emailing, and driving, as unacceptable as drinking and driving. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

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MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.