HUNTSVILLE — Distracted driving is argued by some to be more dangerous than driving drunk — at least it’s more common.
State Farm partnered with Texas AgriLife’s Passenger Safety Project to bring the most common version of districted driving — texting — to students in the hopes that they would quit the act. Other distractions can include other cellphone use, putting on makeup, grabbing something out of a bag, playing with the radio and much more.
“We find that of all the distractions in the car, texting and driving is the most dangerous,” said Bev Kellner, program manager for the Passenger Safety Project. “It takes away three functions at once: manual (hands on the wheel), cognitive (where the mind isn’t thinking about driving), and visual (eyes off the road.”
That’s compared to drunk driving, which only takes away two of the three at most. It’s why Kellner said texting and driving could be as dangerous, if not more so, than driving under the influence.
“It’s so pervasive, how many drunk drivers did you find on the road this morning?” Kellner said. “How many were on there cellphones?”
Mike Countz, Justice of the Peace for Precinct 2 in Walker County, is one of many who have to go to wrecks where there is a fatality. He said the choices people make behind the wheel is what he finds interesting.
“People make good decisions about driving impaired by having a designated driver or calling someone to go get them,” he said. “But when they’re behind the wheel they answer phone calls and texts.”
Kellner said that in less than five seconds it takes to read, type and send a text message while traveling at 65 mph, a driver would effectively drive the length of a football field blindfolded. This, she said, affects teens the most.
“Teens are especially vulnerable to this because they are inexperienced drivers,” Kellner said. “A study has recently shown that their frontal cortex, which controls risk taking thoughts, isn’t fully developed until they are 25.”
Teens that are in a car with multiple passengers, they are three-times more likely to be in a crash and less likely to use a seatbelt.
“When they are in a car with other passengers because they don’t want to seem nerdy,” Kellner said.
While Countz said he’s never been to a scene where there’s been a death as a result of distracted driving, his concern is for the families.
“You lose someone so suddenly that it has a drastic effect,” he said. “Law enforcement has the requirement of notifying next of kin. I can’t imagine how that is.”
“I lost a daughter at 19, not of distracted driving, but I know how that affected my family. I hate seeing families being notified (of a death) for such a senseless thing.”
Huntsville assistant fire chief John Hobbs has been to many accidents involving distracted driving and says it never gets easy to see.
“It’s not the good side of texting and driving,” Hobbs said. “Someone’s hurt ... that’s what emergency services has to deal ... the aftermath that has been caused. And that’s the tough side. When you see people injured, it’s not a good day at work and I’ve seen it for decades.”
Many teens still text and drive despite warnings, including some who have said they are used to texting so they are able to do both simultaneously. Kellner believes otherwise.
“That’s a false self-confidence they have in thinking they can do that,” she said. “It’s been proven that people can’t really multitask if it requires higer level thinking (like both texting and driving). You can walk and chew gum, but those don’t require much thought because walking is almost automatic.”
It’s not just young people that text and drive either, the National Safety Council’s annual injury and fatality report showed that cellphone use while driving was the cause of more than 26 percent of car accidents across the nation. That same study also showed that hands-free devices like Bluetooth weren’t any better than manually texting or calling and in some cases was actually worse.
In a 2011 study by the Center for Disease Control, drivers in the United States between ages 18 and 64 reported that they talked on their cellphone in the past 30 days. Thirty one percent said they had text or sent emails while driving in the same timeframe.
Kellner said the problem is probably much worse than we realize though because people often underreport their own use.
“Texting (is underreported) especially,” she said. “People will say they don’t and the police won’t have it in their records unless there was a fatality.”
Hobbs said people are always denying that distracted driving was the cause of the wreck.
“We ask, ‘How’d you have a wreck?’” he said. “They say, ‘I don’t know.’ ‘A spacecraft flew by, a deer or a dog ran out in the road.’
“You especially see it when they know they’re going to get in trouble and had a head-on collision with another car.”
It can also be a danger to the emergency responders. If a wreck happens on the interstate where speeds can exceed 75 mph, responders have to position their vehicles in a way to protect them from other people who might hit them.
“Just last weekend we had a Houston driver slam into the back of a Houston (fire)truck,” Hobbs said. “We have to work together to protect those people (in the accident) and ourselves. We’ll shut down the road for hours until we’re sure we can safely move the people.”
Countz and Kellner both said people shouldn’t use the cellphone at all while driving. If they choose they need to, Kellner said the driver should have a designated texter to read and type messages for the driver.
The simulator that State Farm and Texas AgriLife have partnered together on have shown hundreds of students the dangers that texting and driving potentially has.
“People get on the simulator and they see how they quickly get into a crash,” she said. “Some people say they don’t normally text and drive, but we require them to and they very quickly get into a crash. Most people do.”
The simulator is similar to other ones traveling the country with other programs. AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign — backed by Verizon, Sprint and T-Moblie — has a simlar program that travels to colleges and high schools across the country.
Hobbs said he’d like to see a public safety course required in all public schools that would discuss the danger of distracted driving, driving under the influence and other dangers.
Kellner would like to see all parents become familiar with the Graduated Drivers License program, which forbids cellphone use for drivers under 18, multiple passengers in the car under the age of 21 except for family members, and can’t drive between midnight and 5 a.m. unless it’s necessary for work.