Most people would never drink and drive. But they will drive a steel missile down a crowded highway at 55 mph while blindfolded. That is the equivalent of texting while driving.
Studies show that distracted drivers are equally if not more dangerous than those who are intoxicated. Cell phone distractions alone cause an estimated 2,600 traffic deaths per year. A total ban on cell phone use from drivers is up to the individual states and while some have issued a ban; the majority have not. Some claim they simply can’t enforce distracted driving laws, much like what was once said about drinking and driving.
Originally, lawmakers said that drinking was too deeply ingrained in American culture to change. Even when drinking and driving was enforced, it wasn’t held to a strict standard and the drunk drivers were given as much sympathy as their victims. It wasn't until the 1980s, when MADD was formed by the mother of a 13-year-old girl who was killed by a drunken driver with four prior DUI arrests. The last had occurred just two days before the girl's death.
Such tragedies, combined with heavy publicity finally encouraged state legislatures to stiffen penalties for drunken driving and to lower permissible blood-alcohol levels. The reforms met resistance at every turn by those claiming that it was possible to drink and drive without problem, just as cell phone users today insist they can text and drive without distraction.
Experts disagree on both counts. Research shows people do not multi-task, according to the National Safety Council. “Human brains do not perform two tasks at the same time,” the NSC said in a March 2010 report. The brain can juggle tasks very rapidly, but it cannot actually do two things at once.
According to the NSC, when information hits the brain, it processes and instantly will “screen out” information as a way to deal with distracted overload. So, if our brain is overloaded with incoming phone calls, text messages or other distractions, “the driver may not be consciously aware of which critical roadway information is being filtered out,” the report said. “… it’s virtually impossible for people to realize they are mentally taking on too much.”
The good news is; the U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently announced that highway deaths are the lowest they’ve ever been since 1949, even though travel has increased. “While we have more work to do to continue to protect American motorists, these numbers show we’re making historic progress when it comes to improving safety on our nation’s roadways,” said Secretary LaHood.
Today, 13,000 to 17,000 people die annually because of drunken driving, down from 25,000 in 1980. So while we've made progress in both distracted and drunk driving, we also have a long way to go.
Americans still take an estimated 90 million car trips a year with a driver who is legally intoxicated and at any given time, almost 1 million Americans are on their cell phones while driving. We are all too willing to forgive and forget and think, “just this once” when it only takes one time, one glance, one call to create a tragic consequence.