Driven to distraction

Florida legislators are trying (again) to prevent distracted driving, but it’s going to be hard for drivers to break the habit.

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One of the first bills officially entered in Tallahassee last week for the 2013 session was an anti-texting-while-driving law from Sarasota GOP state Senator Nancy Detert. SB 0052 is called a secondary law, meaning it could only be enforced if the offender has been busted for another violation. This marks the fourth time Detert has introduced such legislation. A similar version “died on calendar” last winter.

While advocates argue that legislation and enforcement are critical, they represent only the legal, not the psychological or technological factors involved.

According to AAA, more than one in three drivers admits to texting or emailing while driving in the past month, yet 94 percent say they personally consider it unacceptable for a driver to text or email. So obviously we don’t like the idea of the other guy or gal doing it on the road — but think that we can handle it safely on our own.

Paul Atchley isn’t surprised at that dichotomy. The University of Kansas psychology professor says we don’t see what our eyes are open to see, but what our brains tell us.

“Most people don’t realize that we only process at most 40 percent of what our eyes can see,” noting how magicians can exploit those blind spots. “The brain’s most amazing ability is self-deception. It’s designed not to see everything.”

And Atchley fears that the problem of distracted drivers is only going to get worse before it gets better.

His theory is that smartphones and built-in features in new cars are allowing people to engage in distracted driving at an even greater rate, and for longer periods of time.

Cellphone use in cars for talking or texting became a problem a decade ago. Then in 2007 came the revolutionary device called the iPhone. Now many more people have email, the World Wide Web and assorted games to further divert their attention from the road.

A study of 1,000 drivers conducted by State Farm this summer showed that the percentage of those who access the Web on their phones has jumped from 13 percent in 2009 to 21 percent this year — but among those between the ages of 18-29, the number has increased from 43 to 48 percent. Forty-three percent of young people also check their email while driving, up from 36 percent in 2009.

Chris Mullen, State Farm’s director of technology research, told USA Today that “it could be” that the anti-texting campaigns should also include warnings about surfing while driving.

“There are a number of technologies coming that will probably be worse than we have now,” Professor Atchley says.

Those who have studied driver safety point to examples where education and strict laws have substantially reduced accidents. But those milestones were reached only after years, if not decades of debate.

Seat belts, for example, started getting included in new automobiles in the 1960s, after consumer advocate Ralph Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile. But state laws requiring adult use didn't start getting passed until the 1990s, and it's taken 20 years since then to get 86 percent of Americans to buckle up. “These things take time,” said Transportation Secretary LaHood in Tampa. “We’re trying to change behavior.”

Another way to change behavior is through the power of public service announcements. And the cellphone companies are leading the way.

AT&T is behind the “It Can Wait” campaign, which began in 2010. Andrea Brands, director of consumer safety and education, says the combination of teen texting with inexperience behind the wheel inspired the corporation to provide such information. Key to that campaign has been a 10-minute YouTube “Don’t Text While Driving” film that has been viewed by well over 3 million people. Brands says AT&T will hold 19 different teen summits throughout the country next year encouraging them to take action “for their own lives, for their friends, their community, and anybody else they care about.”

And while the Florida Legislature fiddles, local businesses and even local governments are picking up the slack.

Sunstar Paramedics, the provider of ambulance services for all of Pinellas County, implemented a policy in 2007 that prevents drivers from using any type of electrical device while operating a company vehicle.

Rob Smith, a spokesman for Sunstar, says trainees are subject to “an extensive classroom portion that shows a lot of great videos of people who have been texting while driving, or talking on a cellphone while driving.” Sadly their exposure to the effects of distracted driving continues in the course of their job when they’re transporting accident victims to the hospital. “When they’re out there working on the street, they get to see the reality of what happens.”

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