Guest Columnist: Distracted driving results in 25 percent of crashes

By Tom Kelly

Wright County Attorney

Safe Communities of Wright County was one of the first organizations in Minnesota to conduct a public awareness campaign about the most common contributing factor to crashes — distracted driving. Considering the number one cause of death among young people is vehicle crashes, the need to raise awareness on distracted driving was paramount.

Distracted driving includes talking with passengers, eating and drinking, cell phones, electronic devices, navigational systems, putting on make-up, texting, listening to music, reading maps and other materials, adjusting the radio/CD player or even daydreaming.

For years traffic experts listed speed, seat belts and alcohol as the three leading causes for crashes, injuries and fatalities on our roadways. Distracted or inattentive driving is now a major factor in crashes and accounts for 25 percent of all crashes annually. We encourage parents to share this article with their driving children.

My parents always stressed defensive driving. You can’t drive defensively if you’re distracted. You need to be aware of what is happening on the road and anticipate whether you will need to take corrective action. Distracted drivers fail to recognize potential hazards on the road and react more slowly to traffic conditions, decreasing their margin of safety.  If you’re distracted, how do you make a life-changing split-second decision?

Distracted driving was a factor when the state decided to go with a provisional driver’s license for those between 16 and 18 years of age. This license has restrictions that do not apply to a full driver’s license.

For example, you may not use or talk on a cell phone while driving and this includes using a hands-free cell phone device. Also, for the first six months only, one passenger under the age of 20 is permitted, unless accompanied by a parent. During the second six months no more than three passengers under the age of 20 are permitted. The logic behind these restrictions was simple — the more people in the car, the easier it is to be distracted. Moreover, teen drivers are more impulsive and pay less attention on the road.

Using a cell phone while driving quadruples your chances of being in a crash. Some studies suggest this type of distraction reduces your ability to see objects in front of you by 50 percent and slows your reaction time by as much as 35 percent.

Also, don’t be fooled by thinking “hands-free calling” is any safer. The conversation, not the technology, is the most distracting. When talking on a phone you use the same brain activity that is used to navigate a car on the road. When you’re paying attention to sound and conversation, instead of the road, that part of the brain that helps you see is decreased. It doesn’t matter how many hands are on the wheel if you’re not paying attention to the road.

It is illegal in Minnesota to use a cell phone or wireless computer device for text messaging, e-mailing or accessing the Internet — even if stopped in traffic. It is even illegal to read electronic messages. It is a primary violation which means law enforcement can stop and issue a ticket solely on basis of observing someone texting. Texting is a factor in hundreds of thousands of vehicle crashes a year.

Tasks that take your eyes off the road pose the biggest risk for crashes. The average text is 3.5 seconds. At 55 miles per hour your car travels 88 feet in one second. The average text has your eyes off the road for the length of a football field. That is scary. Risks of texting include drifting off the road or into oncoming traffic, missing traffic signals, rear-ending other drivers and hitting bikers or pedestrians.

Texting while driving is just not worth it. Let loved ones or friends know ahead of time that you won’t text while driving.

Multi-tasking is alright for the home or office but should not take place in a car while driving. You’re responsible for your safety, those in your car and you owe a duty of care to those upon the roadway. It is a huge responsibility. We want you to arrive safely. Give driving your undivided attention an buckle up.