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Distracted drivers

Published December 15, 2011 1:01 am

Ban phoning while driving
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Americans love their cell phones and other personal electronic devices. So much, in fact, that many will not acknowledge an inconvenient fact. These devices are a dangerous distraction when people use them while driving. It should be illegal to use them while operating a motor vehicle, except in emergencies.

Enter the National Transportation Safety Board. It recommended this week that states ban the use of PEDs by people behind the wheel. The only exceptions should be emergencies or for devices that are designed "to support the driving task." By that, we assume the NTSB might mean navigational tools such as GPS.

It's not difficult to understand why the NTSB reached this conclusion. It has to investigate grisly accidents caused by distracted drivers. It was just such a bit of carnage, caused by a driver who was texting, that brought the board to say, in effect, enough is enough. If you go to the NTSB website and read the accounts of mass killings caused by driver distraction attributed to use of electronic devices, you will comprehend the board's recommendation. That address is ntsb.gov/news/2011/111213.html.

Utah already outlaws texting while driving. But the Legislature has balked at banning use of cell phones for voice communication. The reason, we believe, is that like many other Americans, legislators use their cell phones while they are driving and believe that they can do so safely. Lawmakers also probably aren't anxious to incur the wrath of PED-loving citizens who will accuse them of big-brotherism.

But the research about distracted driving due to use of electronic communications devices is compelling and irrefutable. It is ironic that Utah has not embraced that research, because some of it comes directly from the University of Utah.

Psychologists there have conducted controlled experiments in driving simulators that demonstrate that conversations on electronic devices distract the mind from the driving task. People don't see and react to objects and hazards the way they should, not because their eyes don't see them, but because their minds are focused on conversation. That's the very nature of a distraction. And because it's the brain — not the eyes or hands — that is distracted, hands-free devices don't solve the problem.

The NTSB points out that as the use of PEDs has exploded exponentially. In the United States the rate of mobile telephone subscriptions has exceeded 100 percent. That is, there are more mobile accounts than there are people. We deny this risk on the streets and highways at our own peril.