Close your eyes, and count five seconds.
Open them. That’s the average amount of time motorists take their eyes off the road while texting. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute says it’s actually 4.6 seconds, but you get the picture. Think of what could happen in 4.6 seconds while you’re driving 55 mph or faster down a busy expressway, with your eyes shut.
Here’s what driving distracted does: April 30, 2013: A woman driving her Dodge Ram truck on an eastern Texas highway checks messages on her iPhone. She crashes into an SUV, killing its driver and a passenger and leaving a 6-year-old boy paralyzed. Aug. 23, 2016: A motorist in Japan is playing Pokemon Go while behind the wheel. He rams into two pedestrians, killing one of them. July 21, 2015: A 17-year-old girl kills a Minnesota man and his 10-year-old daughter after running through a red light; she had been messaging on Facebook for eight minutes before the collision.
Lives lost, families forever marred by moments of distraction.
The latest statistics suggest the toll is likely to get worse. Roughly 10 percent of the 35,000 traffic deaths in the U.S. in 2015 involved a distracted motorist, a nearly 9 percent jump from 2014.
Texting while driving is outlawed in 46 states. Yet a 2015 Harris poll found that nearly a third of American motorists said they text while driving.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed new guidelines encouraging smartphone makers to develop technology that detects when a cellphone is being operated by the driver of a car and then blocks most apps. Think of a “driver mode,” similar to the current “airplane mode.”
There’s a lot of technology already out there aimed at curbing distracted driving. Most new cars are equipped with software that allows drivers to make phone calls, dictate texts and use apps hand-free. Cellular phone carriers Sprint and AT&T offer apps that, when a car reaches a certain speed, send automatic not-now-I’m-driving replies to incoming texts and emails. In the case of AT&T DriveMode, it’s 25 mph. Sprint’s Drive First app locks out calls, emails and text messages at 10 mph.
But all this distracted driving technology has a big limitation: You can turn it on, or turn it off. A phone manufacturer that automatically blocks text without giving the user a say-so runs the risk of users taking their business to other phone makers. Should the federal government mandate such technology? No. Phone makers would be smart to pursue that kind of innovation, and consumers would likely welcome it. Market forces, not government fiat, can drive this change. What to do in the meantime? That’s easy — the public should stigmatize texting while driving, making it as unacceptable as smoking in front of a baby.
There was a time when drinking and driving didn’t carry a social stigma. “Designated driver” was a phrase that didn’t exist in our lexicon. The justice system slapped the wrists of drunken drivers much more often than it jailed them. That has changed dramatically.
The advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving lobbied to lower the legal blood alcohol limit from 0.1 percent to 0.08 percent and pushed police departments to set up sobriety checkpoints. The group also urged states to slap harsher penalties on motorists convicted of drunken driving. Public service campaigns emphasized perils of drinking and driving: Friends don’t let friends … drive drunk. Even beer bottles now remind people to “drink responsibly.” Drunken driving remains a scourge, but alcohol-related traffic deaths have dropped by half since the early 1980s.
The same societal sea change needs to happen with texting while driving. Fines for texting behind the wheel, for example, start at $75. A stiffer penalty would send a stronger message. Saturating the web and airwaves with public awareness campaigns can certainly help. Think of this editorial as a PSA against texting and driving. And the next time you’re behind the wheel and an incoming text pings, think of Sammy Meador, the young boy paralyzed in Texas by a distracted driver, a child who once relished being the fastest kid on his baseball team. Think of Sammy until the urge to pick up that phone stops.