Throughout the rest of the month, Sailors and civilian personnel in Naval District Washington (NDW) are being reminded to set aside cell phones and other distractions while driving, echoing a nationwide campaign by the National Safety Council (NSC) to curb distraction-related car accidents.
According to the NSC, distracted driving is now a public health threat that ranks with alcohol and speeding as leading factors behind deaths and serious injuries sustained from vehicle accidents. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showed 3,328 people killed in distraction-related crashes in 2012 alone.
“Distracted driving is anything that takes you away from the task at hand, which is to navigate your vehicle safely from point A to point B,” said Jim Ganz, installation safety director at Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bethesda.
The NHTSA describes three different types of distractions while driving: manual, or taking hands off the steering wheel; visual, taking eyes off the road; and cognitive, taking the mind off of driving. Texting has become the key target for safety advocates because it includes all three types in one act.
“What is pernicious especially about texting while you’re driving is that besides driving being an action task, it is a thinking task,” said Ganz. “When you are texting, you are also doing an action and a thinking task, and our brains do not multitask despite what everybody likes to say.”
While taking three to four seconds to compose or read a text message at 60 miles per hour, a driver will cover the length of a football field without paying attention to the road. Instead of seemingly performing both tasks at once, the driver’s brain is actually switching from one task to the other, without ever truly “multitasking.”
Barbara Vandenberg, NDW regional safety program director, said 65 percent of Washington, D.C. drivers report seeing other drivers using cell phones often, but only 14 percent admit to doing it themselves. People assume they are better drivers than they actually are, Vandenberg said, and the goal of Distracted Driving Awareness Month is to get people to put down devices in their car and just focus on driving.
“Hopefully by educating people and drawing attention to how potentially dangerous their own behavior is, it would change their behavior in a non-punitive way before something happens,” Vandenberg said. “Driving in the D.C. area is dangerous enough without distractions inside the car.”
Despite taking the brunt of the blame for crashes, distractions go well beyond just texting. According to a 2012 NSC study titled “Understanding the distracted brain,” more crashes are caused by talking on a cell phone than texting, even while using hands-free devices. While hands-free devices are still legal in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, the NSC advises that hands-free devices offer no extra safety measures, and in fact cause drivers’ field of vision to narrow significantly in what the NSC refers to as ‘inattention blindness,’ where drivers look at but do not see obstacles or traffic.
“Just the act of talking on a cell phone, even if it’s on a hands-free device, is also a form of distracted driving,” Ganz said.
Although such devices keep hands on the steering wheel and eyes on the road, a phone conversation still involves the cognitive distraction which keeps drivers’ minds off of navigating their vehicles safely. NSC studies have shown that drivers using hands-free devices while talking on the phone make more mistakes than those conversing with passengers in the vehicle, because passengers provide situational feedback that a disembodied voice on the phone cannot.
In the age of omnipresent technology, Ganz said getting people to put away their devices when driving is a challenging prospect, particularly when auto manufacturers keep rolling out new models with more and more built-in communication features.
Ganz compared the slow cultural shift to that of changing public perceptions about seat belts by steadily cracking down on drivers not wearing them and consistently educating people about the benefits.
“A lot of it is educating our kids, and kids get the message,” he said. “They grew up wearing seat belts; it was a thing. Maybe they’ll grow up knowing that you don’t text and drive; you don’t talk on your Bluetooth while you’re driving.”
Many states across the country have enacted new laws recently in an effort to curb distracted driving accidents. Virginia has a no-texting law, and Washington, D.C. and Maryland have opted for a complete ban on handheld devices while driving.
In the Capital, drivers may be fined as a primary ticket up to $100 and one point on their license for the first violation of distracted driving, which goes beyond phones to include any electronic devices, or anything the police officer deems a distraction.
For Navy personnel, both Sailors and civilians, all motor vehicle operators on Navy installations and operators of government-owned and leased vehicles—including rental cars while on temporary additional duty—on and off Navy installations are prohibited from using cell phones or other hand-held electronic devices unless safely parked.
To learn more about distracted driving awareness, visit www.distraction.gov or www.nhtsa.gov.
For more news and information from NDW, visit www.facebook.com/NavDistWash.