Monday, October 14, 2013

Distracted Driving Kills: How SH&E Professionals Can Take a Stand

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 5-35 and the No. 1 worker hazard, says John Ulczycki, vice president of strategic initiatives at the National Safety Council.

Distracted driving is a serious issue affecting millions of people every year. Much like driving under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, driving while talking on the phone or texting can cause harm to not just the distracted individual, but to others on the road as well. This issue has sparked emotional campaigns, tough legislation and strict bans by employers starting in the 2000s, but so far it has made little impact.

At the 2013 National Safety Congress and Expo in Chicago, four speakers joined together to discuss the importance of this topic in a session entitled, “From ‘Car Phones’ to Car Crash Risk.” Michael Henderek, member of the board of directors for the National Safety Council, David Strayer, professor of Cognition and Neural Science at the University of Utah’s Department of Psychology, David Teater, senior director of the transportation initiative at the National Safety Council, and John Ulczycki, vice president of strategic initiatives at the National Safety Council cover the history of distracted driving, offer statistics and introduce strategies to make a difference in the future.

From ‘Car Phones’ to Car Crash Risk
Cell phones have become more than a way to simply communicate with one another, people now have the ability to find directions, check their email, update their Facebook status and even watch TV all from the palm of their hand. Unfortunately, when people use their phones at the wrong time, such as behind the wheel, they can triple their risk of collision, according to a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI). 

More than 1.1 million collisions a year are a direct result of distracted driving, Ulczycki says. As he explains, distraction can be narrowed down into three categories: visual, mechanical and cognitive. The distractions from a cell phone can put individuals in any of these three categories, but a cognitive distractions (such as talking on a hands-free device or using voice activated devices), are enough to cause the brain to toggle back and forth between tasks, often times making driving secondary. As a result, inattention blindness and tunnel vision set in, leading drivers to miss cues that might not have seen or seen but never processed, he says. 

The level of distraction cell phones introduce can best be explained through a study by the AAA Foundation focused on distracted driving. The study, Measuring Cognitive Distractions, was the first of its kind to show how certain activities, such as talking on a hands-free cell phone or interacting with a speech-to-text email system, affect drivers. Although the study did not include texting, it does indicate that drivers who use a text-to-speech app, or use a cell phone (hand-held or hands-free) demand a high level of attention.

Despite solid research on the hazards of distracted driving, data shows that this issue has not declined. In fact, although studies show more and more teens and young adults are starting to recognize the threat of texting and driving, many are still engaging in the risky behavior. According to data by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) and Toyota, 24% of teens respond to texts while driving, some of whom engage in extended conversations behind the wheel. More importantly, this high-risk behavior doesn’t just affect teen drivers; the same study shows that 83% of Houston parents will use a cell phone while driving (either hands-free and/or hand-held).

Influencing a Culture
As David Teater, leading member of the transportation initiative at the National Safety Council,  explains, cell phones have become part of our culture and it will take more than research alone to stop distracted driving.

He uses the Diffusion of Innovations model, or the Innovation Adoption Curve, to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through cultures. While some people will choose not to use their phone while driving based on information alone, others will need education, polices, laws and enforcement to change their behavior. SH&E professionals, he says, can begin by pushing education and adopting company policies.