Stigmatizing Distracted Driving

Over the summer you can't help but notice a new batch of student drivers on the road as part of driver education programs. But a new disturbing survey was just released from Seventeen magazine and AAA. It found that 86% of teen drivers have driven while distracted even though almost all of them knew it was dangerous. But perhaps they don't realize just how dangerous it actually is. According to previously published studies from the University of Utah, using a cell phone while driving delays your reaction time as much as driving under the influence of alcohol at a concentration of the legal limit of .08.

Posted on | Leigh Vinocur, MD FACEP | Comments ()

Over the summer you can't help but notice a new batch of student drivers on the road as part of driver education programs. But a new disturbing survey was just released from Seventeen magazine and AAA. It found that 86% of teen drivers have driven while distracted even though almost all of them knew it was dangerous. But perhaps they don't realize just how dangerous it actually is. According to previously published studies from the University of Utah, using a cell phone while driving delays your reaction time as much as driving under the influence of alcohol at a concentration of the legal limit of .08.

And According to the lead researcher in that study, Dr. David Strayer, our brains are not hard wired to physically process all the things required for safe driving while speaking on a cell phone, hands free or not. Talking on the phone makes you 4 times more likely to be involved in a car accident. If you text and drive, you are 8 times more likely to be involved in a serious car crash. That is twice as dangerous as driving drunk!

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) almost 6,000 people are killed a year due to distracted driving with another 500,000 seriously injured. And while it is a pervasive problem, at the same time it is somewhat insidious. As an ER doctor I have seen it firsthand, but unlike drawing a blood alcohol level in victims involved in serious motor vehicle accidents, you can't detect it that easily. Now about 30 states have banned texting and driving while 8 states have laws for handheld phones. And teen drivers are not the only perpetrators.

But really, it will take more than the laws banning it. I feel the biggest problem is that there is no a stigma attached to it. We don't read about it in the news the same way we hear about drunk celebrities getting DUIs. People don't have the same outrage or disdain they do for drunk drivers. In fact, it is just the opposite. 

We live in the information age with Blackberrys and iPhones and a pervasive, "you snooze, you lose" attitude. We even call our phones "smartphones" for being able to handle multiple mobile applications that keep us in touch every minute of the day. And it could get worse. Car companies are researching voice-controlled mobile Internet applications on smartphones as broadband widens even further.

There is that perception of a busy, highly successful, multitasking individual who has to take that important message or call. I admit I was once a victim too, as single working mom and doctor I felt I had to answer if the hospital or school called. But then I asked myself, since it is the same as driving drunk, would I ever get behind the wheel after I had a drink? Would I ever endanger my son, others or myself that way? Without a doubt I resoundingly said no. So why, I thought to myself, would I ever drive distracted? Since that time I put the phone out of reach and if an important call came in, I either ask my son to answer or I safely pull off the road to a spot where I could take the call or message.

So beyond the laws, we need to stigmatize it. Kudos to Oprah Winfrey who is doing just that!  And just like in 1980 when Candice Lightner lost her daughter to a drunk driver and started Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), we need the same outrage and we need People Against Distracted Driving (PADD).

Blog written by Leigh Vinocur, MD FACEP
Dr. Leigh Vinocur is a board certified emergency physician and national spokesperson for the American College of Emergency...