Distracted Driving: America's "Deadly Epidemic"

Distracted Driving: America's "Deadly Epidemic"

By Carl M. Cannon - October 7, 2013

At 10:40 a.m. on Nov. 14, 2004, two charter buses driven by experienced drivers were heading south on the George Washington Parkway near Washington, D.C. The passengers were Catholic school kids from Massachusetts en route to tour Mount Vernon, Va.

Both motor coaches, owned by Eyre Bus Service, were 12 feet high. As they approached a stone bridge at Alexandria Avenue, they passed a road sign stating that the clearance in the left lane is 13 feet 4 inches, but the right lane is only 10 feet 2 inches. The lead driver dutifully moved into the left lane. The second driver did not. As his unsuspecting passengers chatted with one another, the roof of the bus suddenly peeled off with a loud and frightening sound.

The passengers were lucky. No one was killed and only one of the injured 11 students was seriously hurt. The driver and the chaperone were unharmed. What the National Transportation Safety Board wanted to know was how the 44-year-old driver, who had traveled the same route only nine days earlier, managed to miss the warning sign.

The short answer is that the man was talking to his sister on a hands-free cellular phone. The longer answer, which extends to professional pilots, boat captains, and train engineers -- as well as operators of motor vehicles -- is known by many names. Aviation experts talk of “situational awareness.” Psychologists parse the concept of “cognitive overload.” University of Utah researcher David Strayer talks of “inattention blindness.” We know it today, largely through the efforts of former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, under the broad heading of “distracted driving.”

A Crusade Against Car Radios

Long before Ray LaHood came along there was George A. Parker. In 1928, Parker was appointed registrar of motor vehicles in the state of Massachusetts. He may or may not have been an actual technophobe, but he was definitely leery of automobiles -- and mistrustful of drivers. They were just too dangerous.

The year Parker assumed office, the United States had reached a dubious milestone: the annual number of deaths on the nation’s roadways surpassed 25,000. Parker’s office reported that 715 of those fatalities occurred in Massachusetts; the state’s top automotive regulator wanted to lower that number. But how?

Initially, Parker focused on speeding. “It is the swift tempo of our modern life,” he said in 1929, “that is responsible for so many motorist casualties.”

Perusing the newspapers of the day, it’s apparent that George Parker possessed an easier talent for the pithy quote than for building consensus for change. At a time when others were calling for more secure automobiles and safer roadways, Parker’s emphasis was on making it more difficult to obtain (and keep) a driver’s license.

“What a large number of our drivers need today is not better road conditions or better mechanical equipment,” he explained. “What they need is better mental equipment.”

This perception would eventually lead him to become an early activist against drunk driving. First, however, Parker took a quixotic detour: He led an utterly unsuccessful crusade against car radios. Asserting that radios were a menace because they distracted the attention of drivers away from the road, Parker told Bay State newspapers in January 1930 that he planned to order a removal of all car radios in Massachusetts.

“In commenting upon the matter,” noted the Quincy Patriot Ledger, “Parker stated that in his opinion the presence of a radio in an auto represents a distinct hazard to public safety owing to the strong likelihood that the operator of the machine will have his entire attention diverted from handling the wheel in listening to his radio reception.”

Parker openly expressed the hope that he was at the vanguard of a movement that would go national. First, however, he had to contend with a couple of inconvenient details. The registrar of motor vehicles almost certainly lacked the legal authority to rip radios out of privately owned autos in Massachusetts, so he convened a public hearing on the matter hoping to achieve a legislative consensus. It did not go as he’d hoped.

Then, as now, technological innovation had its defenders. Representing the Radio Manufacturers Association, a lobbyist named C.C. Colby noted that insurance companies had no compunction about offering coverage for cars with radios. Other speakers pointed out that the radio had obvious safety components: Drivers could be warned of road hazards and bad weather ahead. Colby added that the music and talk emanating from the radio was less distracting that an “irritating” back-seat driver -- and could be turned off much easier.

Americans took these defenses with a grain of salt (in a 1930s survey by the Auto Club of New York, some 56 percent of respondents classified the car radio as a potentially “dangerous” distraction), but they didn’t like a would-be reformer telling them what they could have in their cars. At the public hearing in Massachusetts, only five hands -- out of more than 100 -- went up in support of George Parker’s prohibition scheme.

The truth was that everyday citizens didn’t really know if the radio helped the cause of safety or impaired it. They only knew they loved cars with radios in them: They were paying upwards of $130 to install them in automobiles that cost about $600. It’s a dilemma we are still wrestling with today. The evidence is strong that some technological tasks -- texting, for example -- trigger cognition distractions in drivers, often with tragic results.

Last week, a 59-year-old man from West Hempstead, N.Y., lost his life when his car veered off the road, crossed into the oncoming lanes, and slammed into a tree. Police said he’d been texting while driving. For the families involved, these events are personal tragedies; and yet they are so commonplace that they rarely make headlines. In one case last year that did make the news, a 21-year-old Indiana man named Chandler Gerber was driving his GM van at 60 miles per hour on a rural highway when he plowed into an Amish buggy.

Three children in the same family were killed in that accident and their mother seriously injured. Gerber admitted to police that he’d been texting while driving. He was not even charged with a crime. That attitude is changing. In July, a Somerset County, N.J., judge sentenced 18-year-old Devin O’Niel to five years in prison after he was found guilty of texting while driving a car that crossed the center line and hit another car head on, killing a woman.

“I get to spend the rest of my life without any parents because of what you did,” the victim’s son told the young driver in a dramatic courtroom confrontation.

The real outburst, however, came from Judge Robert Reed. “Eleven of you will die in this country every day because of texting and driving,” he said while pronouncing the sentence. "For God’s sake, stop it!”

The judge’s math was off: Nine people, not 11, die every day in accidents in which distracted driving is considered the cause, or partial cause. (The designation is an umbrella category that includes talking on the phone, eating, using GPS devices -- that is, not paying attention because of any extraneous technology or concern.)

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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