If you have a computer, you've probably seen the four-minute horror video that has become a YouTube sensation. But this isn't your ordinary slasher clip -- it's a public service announcement about the dangers of texting while driving. Created by the local police in Gwent, Wales, the video depicts the gruesome aftermath of a multiple-car crash caused by a teenage driver texting at the wheel.
The video has attracted more than 1.5 million views on YouTube, while causing a worldwide controversy due to its graphic nature. However, no one's debating the fact that the video is timely. In our hi-tech, fast-paced age, more and more people are engaging in distracting behavior behind the wheel, whether it's text messaging, making phone calls or even eating breakfast on the fly.
In a groundbreaking April 2006 study, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) revealed that driver inattention is the leading factor in most U.S. crashes and near-crashes -- nearly 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involved some form of inattention within three seconds before the event. A more recent Nationwide survey shows that 45 percent of respondents had been hit or nearly hit by another driver who was using a cell phone.
Texting = Danger
A July 2009 VTTI study shows that above all, texting is one of the most dangerous behaviors a driver can engage in. According to a VTTI press release, "Text messaging on a cell phone was associated with the highest risk of all cell phone related tasks." The study shows that drivers engaging in text messaging in a heavy vehicle or truck are a whopping 23.2 times more likely to crash than non-distracted drivers.
The fact that texting behind the wheel is dangerous may not be a surprise, but the degree of danger is. Kicking Tires explains, "Compared with this data, driving while talking on the phone or with a .08 blood-alcohol level seem downright safe. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has found that both of those activities make the risk of a crash just four times greater."
Even dialing a cell phone while driving comes with a high degree of risk. Drivers in the VTTI study who did so were 2.8 times more likely to crash than non-distracted drivers. When driving heavy vehicles or trucks, the drivers' risk of a crash increased to 5.9 times. The VTTI study concludes, "These results show conclusively that a real key to significantly improving safety is keeping your eyes on the road."
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 18 states and the District of Columbia have already banned text messaging while driving. While no state completely bans cell phone use, six states and the District of Columbia have banned handheld cell phones.
However, according to AAA, banning handheld phones may not be the answer. A study funded by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that the distraction of using a hands-free cell phone is about the same as tuning a radio. So whether it's hands-free or not, the act of speaking on a cell phone is what causes the distraction.
It's not just government agencies that are catching on to the problem. Many drivers themselves support the enactment of new laws. According to the Nationwide survey, eight in 10 drivers support some type of cell phone restriction, with 80 percent supporting text messaging bans.
Technology Tackles Distractions
While states are responding to distracted driving with new laws, car manufacturers are making technology breakthroughs. The most innovative of these makes its debut in the upcoming 2010 Mercedes Benz E-Class. Its unique drowsiness detection system, called Attention Assist, will use a sensor to monitor small steering corrections often made by drowsy drivers. The system then emits audible and visual warnings to alert the driver.
Another system that can address drowsiness is Volvo's Lane Departure and Driver Alert Control, available with the Volvo S80, V70, XC60 and XC70. The system uses a camera that monitors your car's position in relation to road markings. If your car is weaving, the system uses visual and audible alerts to help you regain focus.
While these safety systems are largely invisible to the driver, infotainment systems inside the car can also help with distracted driving. Ford's SYNC system, for example, will read your text messages out loud when you link your phone through the car's Bluetooth. This allows the driver to keep his or her eyes focused on the road ahead. SYNC is available on select 2008-2010 Ford, Mercury and Lincoln models.
Today's teenagers are the most technologically savvy drivers to ever hit our roads. With a new generation of teens learning to drive, experts predict that driver distractions will continue to increase. However, even with new legislation, just outlawing distracted behavior may not have much of an effect on teens or adult drivers.
To help come up with new ways to address the problem, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has announced a special summit. Scheduled for Sept. 30, the summit brings together lawmakers, safety advocates, law enforcement and academic experts to address the dangers of driving distractions. One notable topic on the agenda is combating distractions caused by complex automotive devices such as navigation systems.
If you have thoughts on these issues, you can get your voice heard. The summit will be available live by webcast and members of the public will be able to submit questions online for each individual panel discussion.