Deadly Distraction

By Cohen, Ilisa | Working Mother, August/September 2010 | Go to article overview
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Deadly Distraction

Cohen, Ilisa, Working Mother

Chatting or text'mg on your cell while driving may seem like life as usual, but danger may be just down the road. BY ILISA COHEN

LINDA DOYLE SETOUT in her car for her daily volunteer work at the Oklahoma Humane Society, feeding a population of feral cats. The light turned green at the exit from her Oklahoma City community, and she drove out. Moments later, a 20-yearold driver who'd been talking on his cell phone for less than a minute ran a red light and hit her car at 45 miles per hour. Linda, 61, was pronounced dead that night from blunt force trauma to the head, neck and chest.

The irony, says Linda's daughter, Jennifer Smith, is that her mother was killed by someone doing something Jennifer and her family did every day. As a real estate agent and mom, Jennifer was constantly on her cell in the car, checking in with clients or her kids. Two years ago, when the fatal crash happened, many weren't aware of the extreme risks. Today, growing ranks of government agencies, safety advocacy groups and companies are working to inform drivers that cell-phone-related crashes in the United States claim more than 6,000 lives each year, and hundreds of thousands more are injured, according to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

But here's the catch: Cell phones, text messaging, BlackBerrys and Bluetooths have undeniably made the lives of workingraothers easier and more efficient. You can rush from a morning meeting to a client lunch and check in with your child-care provider on the way. You can miss a conference call to attend your child's school play and get a phone update driving back to the office. It may feel difficult to give up these tools, but using them when behind the wheel carries a heavy price, experts say. "Drhwgwith this kind of distraction could cost a life- yours or someone else's," says Kara Macek of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). "No conversation is worth risking that." Even so, a federal study determined that li percent of drivers are talking on their cell phones at any given time, putting themselves and others in danger.

Driving Dangers

Imagine letting your child ride in a car driven by someone with a .08 blood alcohol level. Would you feel your child was safe? Not likely. So consider this; "We know from several studies that drivers with a .08 blood alcohol level have slightly better reaction times than those talking on a cell phone," says David Teater, senior director of transportation initiatives at the National Safety Council. Of course, texting is even more dangerous than talking because there are visual and mechanical distractions along with the cognitive distraction of a conversation. Staying connected is truly addictive- that's why so many refer to their PDA as a "CrackBerry"- but answering a call or reading a text is an addiction that must be controlled when it means potentially injuring or killing someone, adds Teater.

Experts caution that usingyour cell phone with a handsfree device doesn't eliminate the danger. Even though both of your hands are on the steering wheel, you may be distracted by your phone conversation instead of paying close attention to the road, says Teater. It's easy to equate a hands-free cell chat to conversing with a passenger in the car, something most drivers do. But this is an inaccurate assumption, Teater asserts. "A passenger will stop the conversation if the driver has to make a traffic decision," he explains. "If the light turns yellow and the driver needs to decide to keep going or slow down, the passenger will stop talking. If someone's about to pull out in front of you, the passenger can point it out." So there's an extra set of eyes in the driving environment to help avoid danger. That's not the case with someone you're talking to on the phone.

Policies in Progress

Though cell phone use while driving poses a threat to those on the road, it's not illegal. Unlike driving while intoxicated or without a seat belt, cell talking and texting have not been universally prohibited by law.

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