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Opinion: Regardless of the law, stop texting while driving

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Earlier this month, Springfield City Council took up a proposed ordinance that would allow law enforcement officials to pull over drivers for “careless and distracted driving.”

Regardless of whether the city ordinance is viable – council is expected to vote May 21 – responsible drivers should take a moment to weigh their priorities.

We’ve probably all, at one point or another, been guilty of texting while driving. At the very least, we’ve all likely engaged in so-called distracted driving.

It’s tough to admit. But it’s an important part of awareness to acknowledge that, as individuals and as a society, we’ve been part of something so incredibly deleterious.

In 2015 and 2016, the most recent years available, around 3,500 people were killed via crashes involving distracted drivers, according to data by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

As for injuries, the NHTSA reports over 390,000 people are hurt in distracted driving crashes each year.

Economic harm also is a factor. NHTSA data from 2010 show crashes involving distracted driving caused $40 billion in economic harm, including property damages, lawsuits, loss of productivity and health care expenses.

The NHTSA defines distracted driving as “anything that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving.” That may include eating and drinking while at the wheel, talking to others in the car or attempting to control the stereo, entertainment or navigation systems. But, according to the NHTSA, texting is the worst offender.

“Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for five seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed,” according to the NHTSA.

Put up against those daunting statistics, the data and logic are pretty clear on this one.

So, why do people continue to text while driving?

For many, it’s because it’s never caused a problem. The NHTSA data show fatalities in crashes caused by distracted drivers represented 9.2 percent of total traffic deaths in 2016.

It’s created the worst kind of confirmation bias. If I’m only 9 percent likely to die because of distracted driving – or riding with someone who is engaging in the activity – that’s less than a 1 in 10 chance, right?

Technically, yes, when looking at the data. But that can be misleading. 

Research in 2015 by Tennessee Technological University assistant professor Steven Seiler hypothesized watching others drive while distracted creates a compounding effect.

“Sociologically, riding with others who engage in such behaviors without consequence contributes to a culture of multitasking while driving,” Seiler wrote in the study called, “Hand on the Wheel, Mind on the Mobile.”

Undoubtedly, we’ve been conditioned to pick up our phone when it rings or buzzes. It’s a bit Pavlovian, to be sure.

But the logical interpretation of the data says cars and phones don’t mix.

If it’s really an emergency, why not pull over at a gas station or parking lot to answer the message? If you have a passenger, ask them to text for you. Hands-free options also are available, though even those can be distracting.

You’ll survive if you don’t answer a text right away. You might not if you pick up the phone in the car.

Back to the city’s proposed ordinance, Councilman Craig Hosmer arguably had the most important point on the subject.

“This [ordinance] gives us the ability to direct people, to inform people, on what we mean when we say, ‘Focus your attention on the road in front of you, where your focus should be,’” he said at the May 7 council meeting.

Whether council passes the ordinance or not, responsible drivers should pledge not to text and drive. Let’s agree to nip this in the bud now before it spreads further to future generations.

SBJ Web Producer Geoff Pickle can be reached at gpickle@sbj.net.

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