Posted on November 17, 2016 · Posted in Brain Injury

You’re on your way to a restaurant to meet your friend for lunch. You hear your phone buzz. It could be your friend canceling the lunch you’re on your way to. Do you look at your phone even though you’re driving? Or do you continue driving to the lunch that may or may not be happening?

distracted driving - autonomous car

Google is working on a project to build a self-driving car. Some people are hoping this would help to eliminate traffic accidents by taking the distracted human out of the equation. (Flickr / Creative Commons / Marc van der Chijs)

Let’s face it. We’ve probably all done it. We are all tempted to peek at our phone while driving. It doesn’t matter how old you are or what kind of phone you have. We are all at risk.

All one has to do to understand how serious this can be is watch stories on the evening news about car accidents where phones may have been involved. This is a very serious issue that the New York Times has addressed in a business story that blames apps for a spike in traffic deaths. With steady declines in traffic deaths for the last four decades, this year marked the biggest percentage increase in 50 years.

During the first six months of 2016, the number of highway deaths increased to 17,775, a 10.4 percent increase from the comparable period in 2015, according to the National Highway Safety Administration. The article mentions apps that can distract drivers, such as Snapchat, which records the speed of your car in its videos, and Waze, which rewards users who report traffic jams. Even apps that try to curtail your distractions while driving can be a distraction in itself.

distracted driving

Bluetooth features and voice command try to make phone calls hands free. However, no Bluetooth and voice command system is perfect, and many times you have to use your hands to navigate the features. Even if the features worked perfectly, it is often the mental capacity it takes to have a conversation that is the distraction.

The article mentioned one accident that occurred in Florida and killed five people. A passenger in one car recorded a Snapchat video showing her traveling at 115 mph before the crash.

In addition to apps on phones, the newest cars have all of these bells and whistles, new features that notify the driver when he is drifting into another lane or if there is a car in his blindspot. These new features are expensive and change the habit of driving the car, take the automatic start feature, for example. When learning to drive, most of us learned to use the manual ignition rather than the push to start. With the cost of new features and accidents from apps, insurance will almost certainly go up.

The question becomes what can we do to protect people from their phones while driving? Texting and driving is banned for all drivers in 46 states, and many localities have also enacted their own bans, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Is this enough? One suggestion I’ve heard is to make the phone emit a flashing light if it is on in the car, which would hopefully get people to turn their phones off while driving. This could be used to tip off law enforcement to people who are using their phones while driving.

The new statistics have alarmed the Department of Transportation under the Obama administration. In October, they started a “Road to Zero” campaign that would try ambitiously to eliminate roadway accidents in 30 years. They are working with the National Safety Council and other safety advocacy groups to accomplish this goal.

The first part of the effort would be identifying changes in regulations, laws, and standards that could help reduce fatalities. This might include tightening the laws on wearing seatbelts in cars and helmets on motorcycles along with cracking down on distracted and drunk driving. It may also relate to regulations on heavy trucks.

The second part of the effort would be to introduce autonomous cars in the long term, which would eliminate the distracted driver from the equation completely. Autonomous cars have capabilities of sensing and navigating the environment without human input. Google has spearheaded a project that is building self-driving cars. However, even some of the new features on cars today, such as signaling when you drift into another lane, has been met with some resistance.

Some people choose to go with the traditional way things are done and not always adjust so rapidly to the changing times. Another concern mentioned in the article is that the autonomous cars will give people a false sense of security, which contributes to distracted driving. Even if people do start using self-driving cars, many people will still probably drive human-driven cars.

Not to say that new technology is always bad, but it can cause problems for people, not just solve them. Some apps out today try to curb distracted driving, such as CarPlay, which use Siri to answer phone calls, dictate texts, and control apps like Spotify and Pandora. Are apps like this one eliminating distraction, or are they encouraging people to use yet another function while driving?

All in all, insurance companies, who track road accidents, are saying that using mobile devices while driving is the biggest cause of the increase in roadway deaths. It is no question that this is a public safety concern. The question is how will we deal with it?

About the Author

Attorney Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.
Past Chair Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group, American Association of Justice :: 800-992-9447