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Charles Mueller

What do a bullet fired from a gun, and a car with a distracted driver behind the wheel have in common? They are both metallic objects traveling at high speeds with the potential to kill anything in their path. When you drive distracted you are basically turning your car into a massive stray bullet. Think about that. If you are traveling at 55 mph and you take your eyes off the road for 5 seconds, then you will have just driven the length of a football field essentially blind. It’s dangerous and irresponsible. We need better laws and rules to discourage distracted driving.

When people think about distracted driving, most people think about texting. I’m guilty of this and everyone I know is too, despite the fact we’ve all heard horror stories about what can happen when people text and drive. One of the more publicized ones is about teenager Liz Marks, a former model who in her own words uses her cell phone “…every second, every minute, every hour”. Liz Marks was distracted by an incoming text from her mother and slammed into the back of a stopped tow truck while she was trying to read it. Liz survived the crash, but she is no longer a model for beauty, she’s a model for not texting and driving. She is blind in one eye, cannot smell, is partially deaf, and has a scar down the left side of her face forever reminding her of that tragic day.

The sad part is Liz’s story isn’t unique. In 2012 alone, there were an estimated 421,000 people injured (and 3,328 killed) in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver. The DOT describes distracted driving as any activity that is not focused on driving the car; this implies texting, talking, eating, drinking, grooming, adjusting the radio, or even using the GPS. People have been eating, drinking and listening to the radio in cars for more than half a century so distracted driving isn’t new. If it is not new, then why is it so much more of a problem today?

In stories like Liz’s, the main culprit wasn’t so much the phone as it was her instinct to check her phone as soon as it buzzed. When Liz described what her phone meant to her she said, “If I didn’t have it (her phone) I would freak out because I couldn’t connect with my friends”. Thanks to companies like Facebook, social life has never been more important to most than it is today and our phones are direct access into this world. When we can connect to so many people, so rapidly, it means we are constantly pressuring ourselves to be “available”; we continuously feel the need to check-in. Maybe that is why since the year 2000, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, human beings average attention span dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds (one second shorter than a goldfish).

Think about what this means. Without any distractions in the car, human beings today are more dangerous on the road than they were 15 years ago simply because we can’t focus on the road for as long as we used to. There is science that backs this claim and shows that people with attention problems are at a higher risk of car crashes than those that are not. Furthermore, the latest neuroscience is helping us understand why. When we look at the brains of distracted drivers we see that they are literally disengaging their brain from the task of driving; this is the same as saying that when we are distracted and driving we may as well be sitting in the passenger seat with cruise control on.

I know this sounds crazy, but Liz Marks is lucky. She is lucky to be alive and lucky she ran into a tow truck, and not a crosswalk full of people. She knows this and is a now huge advocate against texting and driving. Her words to the world are, “If you get a text, don’t look at it. It’s not worth it.” Her story is powerful and her message is strong, but it’s not going to stop people from texting and driving unfortunately. What we need are federal regulations and laws that make the consequences of certain acts of distracted driving, like texting, on par with the consequences of drinking and driving. This seems logical since the evidence suggests the risks are the same. We should also make it a requirement to incorporate some sort of distracted driving test into the process of obtaining a state issued drivers license. We require a vision test in order to get a drivers license, and if you are impaired we stamp your license to let the world know. Driving while distracted is the same as driving blind, so why aren’t we testing for this?

Liz Marks story tells it all. It’s time we focus our attention on keeping ourselves safe. Don’t get distracted by the side issues. The science is clear and we need a federal policy to protect our citizens from the dangers of distracted driving.