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Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Texting and Driving: The dangers of distraction. The latest public health problem.

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The unusual pairing of an telecommunications giant, and an acclaimed German  art house director has resulted in the creation of a compelling film on the dangers of texting and driving. In “From One Second to the Next,” Werner Herzog, commissioned by AT&T, avoids gruesome collision scenes and relies on images of benign looking roads (long after the crash has been cleaned up) and the stories of survivors, both victims and perpetrators, to drive home the point that horrifying crashes occur to regular people on regular roads, doing regular tasks, while driving.

This is not the first video to warn about the dangers of texting and driving. A Welsh public service announcement made headlines in 2009 for its far more graphic portrayal of the consequences of texting behind the wheel. I was unable to find an evaluation of the video’s impact, though in a recent comparison of the US and seven European countries, the UK fared better with only 20% of adults admitting to using sending texts or email while driving compared to 68% in the US. Canadian surveys put self-reported use at 36%.

Distracted driving has emerged as the new collision risk of note, overtaking drunk driving in 2010 as the number one road safety concern reported by Canadians. All provinces and territories with the exception of Nunavut currently have laws forbidding the use of cell phones (including texting) while driving with varying penalties. Though the public discourse, research and policy reaction has been dominated by cell phones, distracted driving encompasses a wide range of activities including, adjusting the radio, eating, reaching for fallen objects, and grooming. Determining which ones play significant roles in motor vehicle related injuries remains challenging.

There is little doubt that texting while driving increases the risk a crash and the consistent reports of frequent use by drivers, and young drivers in particular, is a distressing trend. However, in our zeal to stamp out an obvious, preventable risk, the dangers of texting and driving can distract us from also keeping focus on other significant hazards (from Transport Canada’s 2011 Report on Road Safety):

·         In 2009, 38% of motor vehicle fatalities involved alcohol. In fact, between 1998 and 2009 there has been no significant decrease in this proportion for any age group.

·         An estimated 20% of fatalities are related to fatigue; 60% of drivers reported driving while fatigued and 15% admitted to falling asleep at the wheel.
·         Speeding played a role in 27% of fatalities and 19% of serious injuries; 40% of fatally injured drivers were between 16 and 24.

Perhaps Mr. Herzog can help humanize these numbers.

(Let’s save the challenge of distracted walking for another day.)

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