The Distracted Driving Epidemic

The National Safety Council released statistics last week about highway fatalities. The news about driving on the open road in America is not good: the NSC’s preliminary estimate is that 46,000 people died on U.S. highways in 2022. That’s a 22 percent increase over pre-pandemic 2019, and puts highway fatalities among the leading causes of death in the United States–especially for people under 30.

The NSC’s president and CEO, Lorraine Martin, makes the point that almost all crashes are preventable. She notes: “Words matter, and as a country, we need to learn and understand that there are no vehicle accidents. Each crash that occurs on America’s roads is entirely preventable and unacceptable. We must change the way we think about designing and moving around in our communities, understanding that people will make mistakes and the cost of those mistakes should not be serious injury or death.”

One of the mistakes that people routinely make is distracted driving caused by cell phone use on the road. It’s hard to estimate precisely how many crashes are caused by texting or other uses because reliable statistics aren’t being collected–but the vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Bruce Landsberg, believes the impact is tremendous. He calls the problem of distracted driving caused by cell phones an “epidemic” and notes: “Everybody talks about fatalities, but there are hundreds of thousands or more life-altering injuries — broken limbs, brain injuries, horrible burns. This doesn’t have to happen. These crashes are not accidents. They are completely preventable.”

Experts believe that as many as one-third of crashes are caused by distracted driving–and if you’ve been on the road recently, and seen a driver drift from one lane to another for no apparent reason or passed a car driving erratically only to note that the driver is checking out their phone, you credit those estimates. People are addicted to their phones, and that fact is making our highways more dangerous than ever. Efforts to prevent distracted driving, like “text stops” along highways, don’t seem to be making a meaningful difference, either.

You wonder if the ultimate solution to distracted driving will be technological, achieved either through reliable self-driving cars, or through dampening fields or automatic deactivations that prevent the use of cell phones in moving vehicles, or through some other invention. Cell phone users seem incapable of voluntarily stepping away from their phones, even when they are behind the wheel. They just believe, mistakenly, that they can safely look at their phones and tap out a message when they are barreling down a highway at 70 mph–but when they realize in a split-second that they are wrong, it is often too late to recover.