Why Distracted Driving is Becoming a Fatal Problem

In January 2004, a 20-year-old woman ran a red light while talking on a cell phone. She slammed into another vehicle crossing directly in front of her. The vehicle she hit was not the first car through the intersection, it was the third or fourth. The police investigation determined the driver never touched her brakes and was travelling 77kph when she hit the other vehicle. The crash cost the life of a 12-year-old boy. Witnesses told investigators that the driver was not looking down, not dialling the phone, or texting. She was looking straight ahead talking on her cell phone as she sped past four cars and a school bus stopped at the robot next to her. Researchers have called this crash a classic case of inattention blindness (distracted driving) caused by the cognitive distraction of a cell phone conversation.

The greatest issue with mobile phone use while driving is the lack of capacity of the human brain to react to external stimuli, assimilate information and decide on appropriate action while concentrating on something else - a conversation in this case.  Estimates indicate that drivers using cell phones look but fail to see up to 50 percent of the information in their driving environment. What this means, in effect, is that while we are talking / texting on the phone, vital road information is not being processed by the brain, resulting in decisions being made with incomplete information - quite often with disastrous consequences.

Studies have shown that drivers talking on cell phones are four times more likely to be involved in a crash compared to drivers who are not.  When one considers that last year 1 million crashes were reported to the SAP involving almost 1.8 million vehicles, why would you want to increase your already high crash risk?

“We know South African roads are dangerous. On average 40 people die and 25 are permanently disabled on our roads daily,” says the AA. “The goals of the Decade of Action are to reduce crashes, injury and death by 50% by 2020. Their motto is ten reasons plus ten years is a decade of action.”

In 2011 the United Nations launched the ‘Decade of Action for Road Safety’ with the aim of stabilising and then reducing global road deaths by 2020. Major economies of the G20, leading developing countries and public institutions like the World Bank and the World Health Organisation have all endorsed the Decade of Action. This Decade of Action was first proposed by the Make Roads Safe campaign. More than a million people have supported this call for UN action. Now, with political will and increased resources, millions of lives could be saved. The campaign will work to hold governments and institutions to their commitments, to ensure that the Decade is Action.

The ten reasons are quite compelling:

  1. 1.3 million people are killed on the world’s roads each year.
  2. Road crashes kill more people than Malaria.
  3. 50 million people are injured, many disabled as a result. 
  4. 90% of these casualties occur in developing countries.
  5. Annual deaths are forecast to rise to 1.9 million by 2020.
  6. It is the No.1 cause of death for young people worldwide.
  7. By 2015 it will be the leading health burden for children over the age of five in developing countries.
  8. The economic cost to developing countries is at least $100 billion a year.
  9. Injuries place immense burdens on hospitals and health systems.
  10. Road crashes are preventable.

The causes for these crashes are varied however, even though there is very little statistical data pointing at distracted driving as a significant cause of crashes in South Africa, international experience and research is showing a disturbing correlation between distracted driving and injury.

Now the leading global cause of death for young people, road crashes kill 260,000 children under the age of 18 each year. Governments must do much more to meet their legal obligation to protect the rights of children to travel safely on the road.

The research and numbers show that our cars need to be a cell free zone. “When you become a driver you undertake not to use a mobile phone while you are driving at all – not even hands free,” says the AA.

Oprah Winfrey in 2010 tried to make this a law in America through her No Phone Zone campaign. Her hope was that it becomes mandatory that no one uses their phone in-the car or texts while driving - just as seat belts are mandatory, just as driving while drunk is considered absolutely taboo. Ms. Winfrey said in a statement “I’m hoping that this becomes not just law, but second nature for all of us.”

“The AA’s own research into Distracted Driving prevalence accurately mirrors the findings of the World Health Organisation for developing countries, and the occurrence of motorists using their cell phones while driving seems to be growing,” continues the AA. “During a typical morning traffic peak (07:00 - 08:30), we found that 7.2% of the 2500 drivers observed were holding and using their mobile phones while driving.  Hands free usage was not counted in the survey.”

“It is time for those who can make a real difference - the governments, international financial institutions, the donor community, development activists and the millions who are angry but silent - to step up to meet this challenge and to commit to the Decade of Action for Road Safety,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu in response to the campaign.

Automobile Association of South Africa (AA)
011 799 1126

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