Driver assist technology can go a long way to improving driver safety and reducing car wrecks. However, cell phone technology has resulted in distracted driving. Distracted driving is cancelling out any safety gains of driver assist technology.
Airbags, improved passenger compartment strength, rear view cameras, and driver assist technology have contributed to safer driving. However, despite these improvements, traffic fatalities are rising dramatically.
In 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that auto accident deaths reached over 35,000 in the U.S. That figure was an increase of 7.4 percent over 2014. For 2016, the picture looks even bleaker. The first 6 months of 2016 saw another 9% rise in auto accident deaths over the same period in 2015 according to the National Safety Commission, a non-profit safety organization. This figure translates to approximately 100 people dying every day in the U.S. in an auto accident.
Alarmingly, North Carolina’s car wreck death rate increases have been higher than the national trend. According to the North Carolina DMV, car wreck deaths were up 8.1% from 2014 to 2015. Figures for 2016 are not yet available from the North Carolina DMV.
Distracted Driving is Increasing Auto Accident Deaths
Although drunk driving and speeding continue to be major factors in car wreck fatalities, a new phenomenon has emerged which has increased car crash rates: distracted driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines distracted driving as “any non-driving activity a person engages in while operating a motor vehicle”. The most obvious and common source of distracted driving is cell phone use.
The North Carolina DMV reports that 21% of drivers involved in car crashes admitted to being distracted in 2015. As law enforcement relies on self-reporting by the driver to collect this statistic, this number is probably highly underestimated. Many people will not admit to being on the phone or texting while driving.
How Distracted Driving Causes Car Wrecks
The Transportation Institute at Virginia Tech released a study in 2013 regarding the dangers of cell phone/ texting use while driving. The Institute found that text messaging significantly increased the risk of a car crash and resulted in drivers taking their eyes off the road for an average of 23 second. In 23 seconds, a car traveling 60 mph covers a distance of 674 yds. which is over a third of a mile. According to the same study, taking or making a phone call (including dialing and reaching for a phone) tripled the risk of an automobile accident.
Solutions to Stopping Cell Phone Use While Driving
The obvious solution to curbing car wrecks caused by distracted drivers is for drivers to simply hang up their phones. Public education and awareness about the dangers of distracted driving, however, appear to not be sufficiently deterring drivers from using their phones. People seem to assume that they can safely drive and use their phone. This is in spite of the overwhelming evidence of the dangers of distracted driving.
Forty-six states now have anti-texting laws for drivers. North Carolina banned texting while driving in 2009, although the penalty is a $100 fine. The law is difficult to enforce. Use of a cell phones for taking and making calls is still permitted. NC State Sen. Jeff Tarte introduced a bill in the 2015-2016 titled the Brian Garlock Act. This bill was named after a Charlotte teen who died in a car crash while calling his girlfriend. The bill would have restricted phone use to hands free devices. The bill was referred to committee and never reached the floor for a vote.
Another solution to this technology-driven problem is technology itself. Companies like Cellcontrol offer devices and apps that allow a phone to be disabled if a vehicle’s engine is running. The service typically costs $129 per year. Parents can set the device to disable a driver’s ability to take and make calls and/ or take and receive text messages until the car is at a stop. Most phone companies also offer apps that drivers can voluntarily install and then enable to prevent cell phone use while driving. These apps usually require that the driver manually turn on and turn off the app with each trip.
The NHTSA is currently determining how to make cell phone manufacturers produce smart phones that are safer for drivers. The NHTSA is pressuring cell phone makers to develop technology that can determine if someone is driving, and then automatically disable the phone. Currently, that technology is not available.
Hopefully, with increased awareness and safety controls, the alarming trends of car wreck fatality rate increases can be reversed.