Medical School Launches New Program to Curb Distracted Driving

Researchers at the UCSD School of Medicine are launching a new program to help San Diego businesses end distracted driving, UCSD News Center reported on Nov 7. The program will be the newest component of the larger “Just Drive — Take Action Against Distraction” campaign.

The program will offer free technical assistance to employers who are interested in crafting or strengthening bans on their employees using cell phones while driving. The California Office of Traffic Safety is funding “Just Drive” through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as part of a nationwide effort to educate the public about the dangers of distracted driving so as to improve roadway safety.

According to the program’s distracted-driving program coordinator Angelica Barrera-Ng, during the first program year of “Just Drive” — March to September 2014 — 38 companies and 3,874 people participated in 59 classes that it hosted. In its second project year — October to the present — eight companies and 909 people have so far participated in 19 classes.

The program is a response to a distracted-driving epidemic that the National Safety Council estimated is responsible for more than a fourth of all automobile crashes in 2012. The NHTSA estimates that distracted driving was implicated in approximately 421,000 injuries and 3,328 deaths in 2012.

Research suggests that talking on a cell phone, either hands-free or handheld, is as dangerous as driving with a blood -alcohol content of 0.08, the legal limit in California. Additionally, a study conducted at Texas A&M University found that using voice-to-text messaging is as dangerous as manual text messaging, while UCSD News Center reports that there is new evidence suggesting that it’s even more dangerous.

“The risks posed by visual or manual distractions are easy to understand,” Ddirector of the Training, Research and Education for Driving Safety Linda Hill, director of the Training, Research and Education for Driving Safety, said. “But what people appreciate less is the impact of cognitive distractions, caused by engaging the brain in nondriving tasks. Cognitive distraction causes inattentional blindness, and as a result, drivers have a greatly impaired ability to attend to and respond to what is in front of them.”

Despite the research results, hands-free cell-phone usage while driving remains legal in California, a result unsurprising to Hill.

“It takes a long time to enact laws; they lag behind research,” Hill said. “It is also difficult to pass laws that can’t be enforced, and it’s hard for law enforcement to see when someone is talking but hands-free.”

Though the program is not aimed at changing laws, Hill told the UCSD Guardian that it is supportive of legislation to ban cell phone use while driving.

Hill also asserts that many people cite a sense of obligation to work responsibilities as a leading motivator for risky driving behaviors. She argues that a company policy that bans cell -phone usage while driving can remove any doubt of what’s expected and prioritized. Furthermore, it would help reduce a company’s risk of liability from being sued for damages, should an employee cause harm to another person while driving and using a cellphone.

Moreover, businesses shouldn’t worry about such policies hurting their productivity, as an NSC survey showed that only 1 percent of companies with total cellphone-while-driving bans reported seeing a decrease in productivity.

In addition to helping businesses implement these policies, UCSD researchers will continue to offer one-hour, no-cost workplace classes that discuss the dangers of distracted driving to San Diego businesses and agencies in collaboration with the California Highway Patrol.