DESPITE AN INCREASED AWARENESS of the dangers of distracted driving, we are more tethered to our phones than ever before. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nine people are killed every hour and more than 1,000 are injured as a result of distracted drivers. This epidemic shows no signs of slowing.
According to new data released this week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Adminstration, traffic deaths are increasing nationwide, jumping about 6 percent. Massachusetts alone has experienced a double-digit spike. With 389 deaths in 2016, the state’s 13 percent increase is more than double the national rate.
The Massachusetts Senate passed a bill that would bolster existing legislation against distracted driving nearly four months ago. The new bill expands the 2010 ban on texting behind the wheel by requiring hands-free use. It prohibits distractions such as dialing by hand, typing addresses into a GPS, video calling, and using social media. It improves the existing law and makes it easier for local police officers to enforce. However, since the June vote, the bill has stalled. And it’s unclear whether it will move through the House.
During daylight hours, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones while driving, creating enormous potential for deaths and injuries on US roads. Sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds. At 55 miles per hour, this is the equivalent of driving the length of an entire football field blind.
Teenage drivers are the largest age group reported as distracted at the time of fatal crashes. A recent study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that distraction was a factor in nearly six out of 10 moderate-to-severe teen crashes. What’s more, 40 percent of teens say they have been in a car when the driver used a cellphone in a way that put people both inside and outside the car in danger.
While legislation is only one important step toward eliminating death and injury connected to distracted driving, these laws also further our ongoing and successful effort to educate young drivers about the dangers of taking their eyes off the road. Back in 2010, Arbella’s claims staff started noticing a rise in the number of accidents resulting from distracted driving. Committed to tackling this problem head on, the Arbella Insurance Foundation created Distractology. For the past seven years, our high-tech driving-training program has been traveling to high schools across New England, educating young, inexperienced drivers on the dangers of distracted driving.
Our own data from that program has proven that drivers who complete the training are 19 percent less likely to have an accident and 25 percent less likely to get traffic violations. More than 12,000 new drivers have been through the Distractology training, and almost every one of those drivers tells us it opened their eyes to the real-life dangers of multi-tasking at the wheel.
Education, coupled with enhanced legislation, can teach people to practice safe driving, helping to ensure their safety and the safety of those around them. It’s our hope that by working together with new drivers, educators, lawmakers, and parents, we can break drivers’ addictions to their mobile phones and create a new generation of safe drivers who recognize distracted driving is not only dangerous, but unacceptable.
As of this past summer, 15 states, including Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire, have already taken the important step of passing hands-free laws. It’s time for Massachusetts to finally catch up. Similar driving laws have been passed by the Massachusetts Senate in previous years and left to sit, forgotten, in the House. With this new data, and the lives of Massachusetts residents in mind, we urge lawmakers in the House of Representatives to do their part to fight this safety threat by taking up the new bill and passing it.
John Donohue is chairman and president of the Arbella Insurance Foundation.