Driven to distraction: Share these life-saving tips with friends…after they pull over

Americans have invested lots of time and money in mobile devices. Now comes the hard part:

Turning off the smartphones when we climb behind the wheel.

Morristown Women In Business Chairperson Mary Dougherty, left, signed pledge to drive phone-free after talk by traffic safety consultant Pam Fischer. Photo by Kevin Coiughlin

Morristown Women In Business Chairperson Mary Dougherty, left, signed pledge to drive phone-free after talk by traffic safety consultant Pam Fischer. Photo by Kevin Coiughlin

“We learned how to use them. Now we have to learn to disassociate from them,” Pam Fischer told the Morristown Women In Business over breakfast at the Hyatt Morristown on Thursday.

April is Distracted Driving Month. The transportation safety consultant–a past director of the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety and former spokeswoman for the AAA New Jersey Automobile Club–presented data linking crashes to distractions.

Multi-tasking is a myth, and hands-free phones won’t help, she warned.

“Starting today, we must drive, ride, bike or walk for each other, and not just for ourselves,” Pam said.

DRIVEN TO DISTRACTION

At any given moment, she said, 660,000 Americans are using mobile phones or other electronic devices while driving.

Some 3,328 people were killed, and another 421,000 people were injured, in 2012 as a result of such behavior, she said, citing statistics from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

The subject has special resonance in Morristown. Since January 2013, the town has had at least 49 accidents–one of them fatal–involving motorists and pedestrians, according to police, who have stepped up enforcement at crosswalks.

Motorists should carry mobile phones–strictly for emergency use, Pam said.

New Jersey law prohibits texting, and any other use of handheld devices, while driving, Pam said. The $100 fine increases in July to $200 for a first offense.

MULTI-TASKING MYTH

Pam said many myths surround electronics and driving.

Hands-free use of cell phones, for example, does not minimize the distraction factor, Pam asserted.

And mobile conversations, contrary to common perceptions, can be even more dangerous than drunk driving. Pam said research by the University of Utah suggests that cell phone users react more slowly to traffic conditions than someone with a .08 blood alcohol level–the legal threshold for intoxication.

Multi-tasking?  The Long Valley resident said it’s among the most dangerous myths. The human brain cannot handle two cognitive tasks at once without subordinating one of them, she said.

On average, she said, a texter takes his eyes off the road for five seconds. At 55 mph, his car will travel about the length of a football field during that period.

MORE INFORMATION:

National Safety Council

State Division of Highway Traffic Safety

TransOptions

Talking on a cell phone while driving narrows the driver’s field of attention, creating a sort of tunnel vision, according to one laboratory study in Canada.

Phone conversations are more distracting than talking with passengers in a car, Pam said. Passengers are attuned to traffic situations, and serve as an extra set of eyes for the driver. (Exception: Teens driving with friends is not recommended.)

Surprisingly, perhaps, gadget-savvy teenaged drivers are not the most prevalent phone gabbers on the road. While teens are three times more likely to be involved in accidents than other age groups, the main reason is inexperience, said Pam, mother of an 18-year-old son and leader of the New Jersey Teen Safe Driving Coalition.

Motorists between 25 and 39 are most likely to use a phone while driving, followed by drivers between 40 and 59, according to AAA statistics.

When it comes to texting behind the wheel, the 19-24 demographic is the worst offender, followed by the 25-39 group, Pam said.

Pam Fischer shares study about dangers of distracted driving. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Pam Fischer shares study about dangers of distracted driving. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

PEDESTRIAN PITFALLS

Particularly frustrating, she said, is the auto industry trend of packing more consumer electronics into cars. The AAA ranks voice-activated texting and emailing as the most dangerous electronic distraction. Next is use of hand-held devices. Car radios and audio books pose the mildest dangers, she said.

Pedestrians also must get smarter about smartphones, Pam said. Inattention to traffic is dangerous–police said nearly half of Morristown’s accidents involving pedestrians over the last year were the pedestrians’ fault–and it’s illegal if pedestrians fail to exercise “due care,” Pam said.

A little common sense goes a long way: Wear reflective clothes when walking at night, use crosswalks, make eye contact with drivers.

“We’re in this together. It should not be ‘us’ against ‘them,’” Pam said.

The next Morristown Women In Business meeting is May 19 luncheon at the Hyatt Morristown.

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