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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently released a “National Phone Survey on Distracted Driving Attitudes and Behaviors.” This study (prepared by Connecticut’s own Preusser Research Group) encompasses all drivers, not just teens. It contains many findings that confirm what most of us would suspect, but one surprising finding that highlights a dangerous attitude about cell phone use and texting while driving.
The study Abstract says: “About 2 out 10 drivers (18%) report that they have sent text messages or emails while driving; about half (49%) of those 21 to 24 years old report doing so. More than half believe that using a cell phone or sending a text message/email makes no difference [NHTSA's emphasis] on their driving performance, yet as passengers, 90 % said they would feel very unsafe if their driver was talking on a handheld cell phone or texting/emailing while traveling with them” (my emphasis).
Wow. We think texting or emailing while driving is safe when we do it, but not when we are the passenger and the driver is doing it. I can only speculate as to the psychological explanations for this phenomenon, but they probably include that when we are texting and driving, we are at least in control of the situation — we can put down the phone or stop texting or emailing when we think we have to, which another driver may not. We are confident in our own abilities but somewhat blind to our limitations when it comes to dangerous behavior. Only when we observe texting and cell phone use do we really appreciate how dangerous it is.
I wonder if part of the answer here is for better warning messages from our electronic devices. For example, in most vehicles with a dashboard mounted screen, the standard warning that appears when the screen first comes on is something like, “Please do not let this screen distract you from your driving.” Maybe it should say, “You may think that it is safe for you to text or email while driving, but it is not – think about how you passengers will feel if you do it.”
Lastly, if 49 percent of drivers aged 21 to 24 confess that they text and email, then the percentage must be much higher among 16 to 20 year olds. Scary stuff.