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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Distracted driving is also an environmental issue

Kaid Benfield

Posted August 14, 2009 in Health and the Environment, Living Sustainably

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  Meghan isn't watching the road (by: Ryan Harvey, creative commons license)

Distracted driving kills people.  One would think that would be enough.  But, sadly, in 44 states of the good old USA, you can blather away, cellphone to ear, and drive 60 miles per hour if you want.  In 33 states, you can go ahead and text-message while you're at it, even doing both at the same time.  Of course, even in those places where driving while phoning is illegal, it is tolerated:  I live in one of them, and I can assure you that our law banning using hand-held devices while driving is the most flagrantly violated and unenforced prohibition ever.

Oh yeah, driving while both talking on the phone and texting happens.  Last month, a truck driver in Lockport, N.Y., crashed through a fence, clipped a house and plunged his flatbed into a swimming pool as he tried to talk on one cellphone and text on another, writes Jacquielynn Floyd in the Dallas Morning News.  Floyd also reports that, earlier this year, a man in Utah pleaded guilty to negligent homicide resulting from an incident in which he killed two people while texting and driving, and continued to text away while he was being questioned by officers at the scene.

5000 US pedestrians and cyclists are killed each year by motor vehicles (by: dbking, creative commons license)Obviously, this is a serious public health and safety issue.  But, if you need more, it's an environmental issue, too.  If our streets aren't safe and perceived as such, it will only be that much harder to convince people to leave their perceived fortresses-on-wheels and walk or bicycle instead.  Safety is one of the main arguments of the Complete Streets coalition (NRDC is a member) for making roadways more accessible to all types of users, not just drivers ("complete streets improve pedestrian safety" is the first-mentioned reason offered in the Coalition's FAQs explaining its agenda).

As far as I know, the coalition hasn't taken up the distracted-driving issue, but they should.  I remember being at a transportation coalition meeting some time back, when our platform for safety was being discussed.  The coalition was in favor of almost any engineering measure designed to slow drivers down or restrict their space (personally, I'm not always on board with all of those) but, when I raised the notion of cellphone bans, all I got were blank stares and a couple of admissions that people in the room did it themselves.  They were only interested in safety if it involved reduced driving; merely reducing death and injury wasn't enough.

Heck, I know one guy who recently edited a book with "sustainable" in the title who will discuss business with me on the phone pretty much only while driving.  That is offensive on multiple levels that I needn't get into.

Here are some facts:

  • Approximately 5000 pedestrians and cyclists are killed in motor vehicle crashes every year (meaning over 50,000 walkers and bikers have died from vehicle accidents in the last decade).
  • Cellphone users are four times more likely to be in an accident while driving than those who aren't using them, and truckers who phone and drive are six times more likely.
  • it's illegal in Bahrain - why not in the US? (by: Omar Chatriwala, creative commons license)Driving while talking on a cell phone is just as statistically dangerous as driving while drunk.
  • Truckers who text while driving are 23 times more likely to be in an accident than those who don't.
  • 58% of Americans believe that talking on a cellphone while driving is "a very serious threat" to their safety.
  • Nevertheless, 55% of that group reported talking on cellphones while driving in the last month.
  • 90% said that texting and driving was "a very serious threat," but 18% of those same people admitted texting while driving in the last month.  (Half of drivers aged 16-24 are said to text while driving.)
  • While not all phoning and texting accidents result in deaths, thank goodness, cellphone use is implicated in a whopping 342,000 auto accident injuries annually and costs $43 billion each year in property damage, lost wages, medical bills, and loss of life.
  • The National Safety Council estimates that 100 million Americans use cellphones while driving; nearly a million people are chatting behind the wheel at any given moment.  (I think most of them are in my neighborhood.)

Many of these stats come from some good reporting in yesterday's Washington Post by Ashley Halsey III.

  "Don't be stupid" (by: Paul Oka, creative commons license)

Cyclists and walkers aren't immune from this addiction, of course.  I know cyclists who think nothing of taking one or both hands off the handlebars and looking down to enter a number on a cellphone while riding.  Scares the hell out of me.  And just last weekend I heard from a mom (both of us were visiting my mother on her birthday) whose 15-year old daughter recently walked right off a 15-foot retaining wall, breaking both ankles, while distracted by a cellphone conversation.  But cyclists and walkers who multi-task, however hazardous to themselves, do not pose the same danger to others as someone behind the wheel of a 2000-pound or heavier metal box going at speed.

How in the world are we going to have safe streets if we allow this to continue?  We can't have walkable communities without safe streets, and we can't have streets that are safe for walkers and cyclists unless we reduce some of the risks that are killing 50,000 of us every decade (along with lots of vehicle drivers and passengers).  a memorial to a fallen pedestrian in Ithaca (by: Ari Moore, creative commons license)My fear, unfortunately, is that the genie may already be out of the bottle on this one.  People think it's dangerous when others do it, but worth the risk to do it themselves.

In addition to the story in the Post, the New York Times has an excellent in-depth article on distracted driving, and the paper's Maureen Dowd has weighed in with a persuasive op-ed on the issue.  So has the San Francisco Chronicle.  Transportation Secretary LaHood is sufficiently concerned that he promises a "summit" on distracted driving, and New York Senator Charles Schumer has introduced a bill in Congress to withhold 25 percent of federal highway funds from states each year unless they at least ban texting.  (That's not enough, in my opinion, and neither are pansy laws that are enforced weakly or not at all.)

Walkable communities that offer reasonable alternatives to driving are important to sustainability.  Let's make sure they are safe.  Especially with transportation reform becoming a major priority for the environmental community, I believe that we have a stake in this issue.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 

 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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