Crashes Caused by Failing to Attend to the Road

The term “distracted driving” is popular these days. But what do we really mean when we use the term? Are people who try to text and drive, or who try to dial a phone while driving, simply the innocent victims of a computer processor based device that someone stuffed into their pockets? Are the choices that a driver makes to stop paying attention to the road and start playing with an electronic device simply inadvertent mistakes?

A failure to attend to the roadway ahead doesn’t just sneak up and pounce on you like a lion or tiger hiding in the grass. You have to choose to remove your attention from the roadway and decide to endanger yourself and others. Such decisions may not seem like decisions at all, but they are indeed conscious decisions.

I would suggest that the first and best way to stop distracted driving, is to recognize that you have to consciously choose to do it or not do it. In 2014, 3,129 people were killed in crashes linked to distracted driving, with texting and cell phone usage being a primary distraction. These 3,129 people did not die because a cell phone killed them. They died because a person killed them. A person who consciously decided to take their eyes off the road while keeping their foot on the accelerator.

Most states, including Indiana, ban texting while driving. Yet, despite the existence of a law, people still text and drive. If people understood that doing so was no different than consciously deciding to put a blindfold on and drive, the odds would be much higher that they would stop the activity. The electronic device is not the culprit — the mindset that permits the driver to think, “It’s okay for me to look at the device while driving” is the culprit. But, driving blind while not attending to the road ahead is not okay. It never has been ok.

For as long as people have been driving automobiles, crashes have occurred due to a conscious choice to fail to attend to the roadway. A classic case that comes to mind is a case I tried in 2004 involving a fatal crash on the Indiana Toll Road. A semi truck driver who caused the crash had a map open on the seat next to him and admitted that he took his eyes off the road for between 6 and 10 seconds to look at the map. … This was before GPS navigation systems were prevalent. There was nothing wrong with having a map. There is nothing wrong with having a cell phone. But, when you are driving, whether it’s a map or a cell phone that is attempting to grab a hold of your eyes and blind you to the task of safely operating a huge machine at high speed in the proximity of other high speed machines, full attention must be given to the highway. Drivers should not be reading maps, magazines or newspapers (or texting or dialing phones) while driving. Simply put, drivers should be driving.

Even if a map started beeping at you inviting you to pick it up and be distracted by it, it is your job as the driver to ignore it. The best choice when your map starts beeping at you is to pull off and look at it while you are safely parked. Even though a beeping map would be quite the novelty, it would be irresponsible to allow yourself to be tempted to look at it while driving.

In short, texting and using a cell phone while driving creates a visual distraction (just like a map or magazine) that causes drivers to take their eyes off the road and onto the screen of their mobile device. Diverting attention from the road for just a few seconds can be fatal. On average, texting drivers take their eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds.  At 55 miles per hour, that is equivalent to traveling about the length of a football field—without looking at the road. Would you ever consciously close your eyes for 4.6 seconds and drive down the road blind? Realize that texting and using a cell phone creates a physical distraction, such that doing it while driving (eyes off the road and hands off the wheel in order to reach for a device, type a text, or hold onto the device) is as dangerous as closing your eyes or wearing a blindfold.

Say you decided to drive with your eyes closed for 4.6 seconds at 55 mph. Would you definitely crash the instant you tried it? Maybe not if the road were perfectly straight and level, but the odds of crashing would go through the roof wouldn’t they? Statistically, for truck drivers who text while driving, the risk of a crash, near-crash, or unintentional lane deviation increases 23.2 times.

For truck drivers and drivers of other commericial motor vehicles (CMV), the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has created rules, going further than many state bans on texting while driving—they also prohibit any cell phone usage while driving.  Period.  This means CMV drivers should not be reaching for or holding a cell phone in order to talk to someone on the phone while driving.  Truck drivers should not attempt dialing a phone number to place a call on a cell phone while driving if it would require pressing more than one button.  Basically, if a CMV driver wants to talk on a mobile phone while driving, it must be done using a hands-free device that incorporates an earpiece or speaker phone, and is either voice-activated or only requires pressing a single button to place, answer, and end calls.  Do these rules make sense even if you are driving a 3 ton 4-wheeler at 55 mph, instead of a 60 ton 18 wheeler? That is a question that only you can answer.


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