Over the past decade, government, law enforcement, and corporate have poured efforts into preventing accidents from drivers using their cell phone or texting behind the wheel. Unfortunately, 2017 data from the NYS Department of Motor Vehicles seems to indicate that it has had little effect.
In 2017, police across New York State wrote more than 217,156 tickets to drivers who were talking on the phone without a hands-free device (cell phone ticket) or who were distracted by an electronic device, including a cell phone for texting or apps, GPS system, or other device (simply called “texting” in this article).
Despite the massive number of tickets written for these traffic violations, accidents related to cell phones and texting (and other electronic use) have been on the rise. The DMV breaks out crash data based on contributing factors, such as hand-held cell phone use, texting, other electronics usage, and navigation devices (i.e. GPS systems). In nearly all categories, the number of accidents with such factors has risen significantly. In 2009, there were 650 such accidents. By 2017, that figure leaped by nearly 70% to 1,102; 747 were for cell phone-related crashes alone. The rate of injury and death in such a crash has remained more or less the same at about 50%.
What Is Being Done to Prevent Cell Phone/Texting Crashes?
Much has been done throughout New York State (and nationwide) to reduce cell phone and texting-related accidents. The fine for a first offense was raised from $100 to $150, then again to $200. Points associated with a conviction increased from 3 to 5--on par with such offenses as reckless driving and failing to stop for a school bus. The state agencies and law enforcement have also engaged in numerous public relations campaigns and enforcement initiatives. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also made an effort over the years to rebrand many highway rest stops as “text stops.”
Automakers have also taken the issue seriously. But rather than convince people not to pick up the phone, they are making it less distracting to do so. Bluetooth connectivity has become increasingly common in most car models and is nearly ubiquitous. Other features, such as Ford’s SYNC operating system can read incoming texts aloud and send texts dictated by the driver. GM has been developing sensors and software that can detect when a driver’s eyes are no longer on the road--and even pull over if an auditory warning isn’t heeded.
After much controversy and a lawsuit, even Apple got on board and released a “Do Not Disturb While Driving” feature to its iOS operating system that disables all alerts while the vehicle is in motion.
Why Isn’t This Working?
Despite technological advancements, information campaigns and enforcement efforts, crashes related to cell phones and texting are on the rise. Traffic tickets, in particular, seem to have little effect, especially for texting. In 2009, only 181 tickets were issued for texting while driving (and using other electronic devices such as GPS systems) in NY. By 2017 that figure increased by several orders of magnitude to more than 112,000! And yet the number of associated crashes also spiked by more than 167%.
One reason drivers can’t seem to put their phones down could be a matter of genuine addiction. Research shows that every time the phone “pings” with a text or app-related alert, it gives the brain a shot of dopamine. This stimulates the reward pathways of the brain--the same pathways associated with pleasure from eating, sex and alcohol. At the same time, when the brain feels rewards, science shows that the logic parts of the brain are blocked.
Another reason is that drivers are just generally more distracted, electronics or not. The number of crashes associated with driver distraction--which could include anything from talking with a passenger, reading a billboard, or putting on mascara--has increased by almost 20% since 2009, from 47,713 to 56,907.
It’s also worth looking at the follow through associated with tickets. More than 30% of drivers are able to plea down a texting ticket to a non-texting charge. The same is true of approximately 35% of drivers hit with cell phone tickets.
What Else Can Be Done?
Short of rewiring the human brain, it seems like the battle to prevent cell phone and texting-related accidents is an uphill battle. The problem is far from insignificant. Texting takes a driver’s eyes off the road for an average of five seconds; at 55 mph, this means traveling the length of an entire football field with one’s eyes closed. This is similar to the way alcohol affects reaction time behind the wheel. It makes sense, then, that the rate of injury and death would closely track that of DWI-related crashes (54%).
That begs the question of whether cell phone and texting violations should be treated the same as drunk driving. Prosecutors in Erie County have taken this approach and are seeking more aggressive penalties against distracted drivers. The local district attorney recently convicted a truck driver for second-degree manslaughter following an accident that killed a University at Buffalo professor. The driver, Kristofer M. Gregorek, was filling out an online customer satisfaction form for a new app on his cell phone at the time of the collision.