Monica Guzman tries out a texting-while-driving simulator that AT&T brought to Garfield High School in Seattle today. Check out the video below to see how she did.

“Between 2006 and 2008 there were 451 people who lost their lives in traffic collisions in Washington,” I heard on the radio last week. “Twenty-six percent of these fatal crashes involved distracted driving.”

Oh no, I thought. Here it comes:

The guilt.

“Your friends at AAA would like to ask your help in keeping everyone safe on the roads by putting your cell phone away when driving.”

At GeekWire’s Seattle 2.0 AwardsI wondered out loud to a group of fellow writers if I’d ever be able to write an honest column about texting, emailing, calling, reading and in other ways using phones while driving. “Sure,” fellow GeekWire columnist Frank Catalano joked. “Just use a pseudonym.”

For years we’ve seen the stats, read the science, had the conversations and acknowledged, with little objection, that handling and using a phone while driving is a bad and very dangerous idea. It’s in some way illegal in Washington and about 30 other states, with texting banned in 38 states plus D.C. But so many of us still do it. And no one seems to want to consider: What if we can’t stop?

More than ever, we’re using our smartphones to do all kinds of things immediately — because we can, and because it’s amazing. Eighty-six percent of smartphone users used their phones in the past month for real-time tasks to help them meet friends, solve problems, or settle arguments, according to a Pew Internet and American Life Project report released this week.

Sixty-five percent of smartphone users get turn-by-turn navigation or directions while driving, according to that same report, with 15 percent saying they’ll do that on a typical day.

Few of you are surprised, because many of you do the exact same thing.

And so do I. For years I’ve struggled to leave my phone in my bag on the passenger seat while my mind races with all the things I need to check, do and look up while I get from one place to another. There’s that email that’s blocking a colleague from a task. The tweeted question that might have a dozen responses by now. The report I was supposed to have read before this meeting I’m going to. And where exactly am I going to? Here’s a stoplight. Let me check…

For a few months, at least, the responsible Monica beat down the uber-connected one. I let phone calls and text messages go unanswered and shook off the cognitive dissonance caused by my thinking I’m a decent person even while I endangered other drivers and myself by using my phone on the road. At some point, that ended.

[Related Post: Texting while driving? This AT&T simulator will scare the crap out of you]

I struggle with this every day, and I know I’m not alone. You know who you are, fellow culprits, and we have to admit it: We’re collectively at fault, collectively ashamed and far too hushed about it.

When I was little, I’d see faded posters here and there about the importance of buckling up despite what seemed a ridiculous concern that it could wrinkle your clothes. Stats and PSAs won that safety war, I guess. A society that never had seatbelts figured out that the tiny inconvenience could prevent a huge disaster. But if your smartphone feels to you like mine sometimes does to me — an extra limb — putting it away while driving is not a question of something you do, like buckle a seatbelt, but of a lot of potentially urgent things you don’t, like handle a work crisis, check plans with your spouse, or figure out where you made a wrong turn.

Distracted driving is a problem. A big one. But the longer I go knowing I’m part of it, the more I think we’re not talking about it honestly enough. Typically it’s brought up in posts and articles that dole out the latest (typically underreported) figures, remind people of the safety and legal risks (here’s Washington’s law), humiliate a soul or two if they can manage it and consider the news shared and the matter, for the time being, closed.

It’s important that we hear about the dangers. But if we don’t also speak up about the incredible benefits of real-time phone use and the equally incredible difficulty some of us face trying to holding back when we’re in the car, we’re only having half the conversation. How can we expect residents of our always-connected universe to relate, react and change?

Over time, maybe, technology will help. It’d be great to see dashboard voice controls and device link-ups that actually work, are actually affordable and science actually assure can both satisfy our need for real-time, all-the-time connection and eliminate the dangers.

For now, it’s no good to wait and change nothing. This has to stop.

If you struggle with this, can you admit it? What’s the biggest thing holding you back? And for those of you who have managed to stay connected everywhere but in the car, what tips can you share with the rest of us?

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  • Heather Werckle

    Part of the key to being successful in making your car a phone-free zone is to make sure everyone knows! My friends, family, and coworkers all know that my policy is to leave my phone in my purse while driving. So, if they need something urgently, they better catch me before I leave work for that big event, or after I get home, etc. Setting expectations so that no one will ever expect you to use your phone in the car helps you feel less pressure to do so.

    • Monica Guzman

      That’s smart. I see how it works with people you see a lot, like family and close friends. But what about with professional contacts? It’d be tough for them to know when you’re in the car and when you’re not, and if professionally the expectation is that you always pick up the phone when work calls, and that you check your email and respond to it consistently throughout a day — well — that kind of pressure is much harder to ignore, especially for tech workers, I’d imagine …

      • David Lee

        Someone should build an app for this. With a single click you could set your status to “unavailable”. It could even be automated if the app detects you’ve bluetooth paired to your car. It could even tweet the in/out of car events :)

        • Guest

          David, my phone came with an app like that. It even has a handy hard button on the case: to launch the app, I hold the button down, then confirm I want to launch it.

          It takes a little while to quit the app, but for my money, it’s exactly what I need.

        • Monica Guzman

          Hm. Wonder if maybe a version of this already exists? I know there are apps that send auto-tweets when you are driving, though you have to tell it you’re driving). I like the idea of an app that actively sets a status across your real-time networks to “unavailable,” so there’s no chance of someone having an expectation you’ll respond when you can’t.

          • Lori Fredericks

             I had an app pre-installed on my Sidekick (that must exist for other phones, but it was a T-Mobile/Android specific app) that basically determined via the GPS/speed that you were likely driving and would lock you out of everything other than music or phone — and if you disabled it, it could alert someone (i.e. parents) to the fact that on xx date and xx time, the drivesmart was disabled. I *believe* there was an option to auto-reply to texts (and calls, via text) that you were driving and would respond when you were done.

          • Lori Fredericks
          • Monica Guzman

            Thanks for this, Lori!

      • M.J.

        I did check emails at redlights and talk while driving, but I’ve stopped. It took some detox time, but I don’t struggle with it any more. I pull over if I have an urgent need to use the phone now. Hurting someone isn’t worth it. I drive and I ride a bike, sometimes with two children on-board. I wish more people would detox so I didn’t have to worry about them using their phones while we are sharing the roads. You don’t want to hit someone as a result of using your phone from behind the wheel — especially not a mom with two little kids. So choose not to do it. 
        You can lead here, you know. Like Heather said, change the expectation. Stop feeling ashamed for a) not answering and b) using your phone on Broadway. If you must justify not answering, say, “I was in the car” and command the respect you deserve for not endangering people by using the phone when driving a  car. 

      • Heather Werckle

        What if you were in a meeting in a building with crappy reception and no wi-fi (hey, it could happen)? What if you were just in an important meeting with a client, etc? There are many times during the day that people are unavailable to answer a phone/text/email/tweet. Just make driving one of those times as well. Most of the time, we’re really only talking about 10-30 minutes of unavailability. The world won’t end in 20 minutes. ;) Now, if you’re on a 4-hour road trip, a bit more prep might be needed to make sure people know you’re offline, but there a million reasons you could be unavailable for 20 minutes.

        • Monica Guzman

          You’re right. And wow – now that I read this exchange again, going down the rabbit hole of thinking you can’t be unavailable for a reasonable stretch of time seems like a VERY bad idea that will lead us all to a VERY bad place. Yike.

          • John Bravenec

            Totally true. It’s all about setting and enforcing reasonable boundaries.

  • ted

    That simulator was quite unrealistic.

    • Monica Guzman

      Honestly, it reminded me of old car arcade games, in that a little turn on the wheel sends you careening over, and a little pressure on the gas pedal gets you revved up fast. It didn’t resemble the driving in most cars I’ve been in, but that’s mostly beside the point, since the simulator is hardly the only argument against texting while driving. (Though you do have to wonder — if it did resemble a more realistic driving experience, would it be tougher to make the argument the way this campaign is making it?).  

  • Guest

    I’m not using my phone when I drive. When I’m not driving, I’m documenting people who are using their phones when they drive. The authorities need to know how reckless and prone to manslaughter so many drivers are.

    • Monica Guzman

      The most ashamed I ever felt using my phone in my car was one day driving down Broadway on Capitol Hill, when a cyclist banged on my car window and yelled at the top of his lungs, “Put the phone away!” I felt awful. Cyclists in particular need drivers to be alert. Every time I drive down Broadway, I remember that. 

      • Guest

        That cyclist is fantastic. Kudos to him for bringing the message directly to the people.

        If people can’t drive without touching their phones, perhaps they should get in the habit of putting their phones into the glove box and locking the glove box before they sit in the driver’s seat. For cars without a locking glove box, the trunk also works for this purpose.

  • Danielle Huston

    Does anyone have recommendations for an app for iPhone that will lock your phone while driving?  I worry about my son who is a new driver and I’m very realistic that he is probably doing all sorts of things he shouldn’t so if I could police the phone . . .

    • ted

      Supposedly this app works on iPhone and it will lock you out of texting if you go over 7mph for 20 seconds and release once you have stopped for 20 seconds.

      I have never used it, so you might need to do more research on it. 

  • jcman

    20 years ago this wasn’t a problem.  People were unavailable for a variety of reasons and messages were left on answering machines.  This whole idea that we have to be connected all the time is very stress inducing.  A person is more creative and has time to think through problems and issues when not connected all the time.  That’s why we sleep, so our minds can sort through and store the important happenings of the day.  Sleep deprivation leads to psychosis.  I think we need down time during the day and while driving requires attention so much of it is automatic it gives us time away from the demands of busy lives and may lead to better results when we arrive at our destination.

    • Monica Guzman

      So true. I grew up in rural New Hampshire, and I’d spend 45 minutes in the car getting to my best friend’s house. In college, I realized I missed that time off, to myself, where I could be quiet and contemplative because there really wasn’t much else to do and the world knew it. The ubiquity of technology is eroding those times and spaces we used to have to ourselves as a matter of course; wondering what might happen to contemplation as a consequence is … interesting.

  • Trying

    when entering the car, I try to lock my phone in my glove box, only unlock when I get to my destination. Seems to be the best way to keep from being tempted. After being in a multi-car accident last year caused by someone who was almost certainly texting, I try to be aware of this. But it is a struggle.

  • Guest

    I don’t use my phone when I drive. However, where I live it’s illegal to use one in the car without a hands free option. The fines involved are quite high. Yet every day I see dozens of people doing so. It’s really reckless and irresponsible.

    • Guest

      Even though it’s “frowned upon” here in WA, unlike the Northeast, don’t be afraid to honk like hell at someone sitting there in front of you texting even though the light turned green, too. That’s just an annoyance, but that person is probably also doing it when it could be more dangerous, too, and maybe they’ll think twice next time.

  • MagBill

    There actually is technology in the works that blocks handheld cell use by the driver entirely if the vehicle is moving, without affecting passengers or requiring an app or registration. Not yet commercially available, just patents and prototypes at the moment.

  • Jason Emery

    I am not going to bother with stopping using my phone in the car until the hype is gone and we see actual stats instead of bogus reports. For example I just cannot buy that texting is as dangerous as driving drunk and as long as they keep saying that I see it as hype and not reality. There is one huge difference between the two – when texting, you can put the phone down – you cannot stop being drunk. It is really no different than changing the radio station, turning on the car lights, setting the temperature or eating something. How is it any different – all state have laws against reckless and negligent driving – just enforce those. The only reason there is any focus on cell phones specifically is because you can find out if someone was using a cell phone and how and when. It is much harder to determine if someone was changing the radio station…

    • MagBill

      There have been numerous published studies, not “bogus reports”.  See for links to many of them. The Harvard study estimates an additional 2,600 deaths per year attributable to cell-phone use. You also might want to talk to a WA State Patrol officer about some of what they’ve seen in recent years. People running at high speed into stationary objects – stuff that rarely happened when people were simply “changing the station, turning on lights, eating something…”. Or talk to a WA State ferry employee about the driver chatting on a cellphone who ran right over a ferry worker while loading, killing him. Something that’s never happened with a driver changing the station or munching on fries.

      People are dying because of people in deep denial. The data is there if you care to seek it.

    • KD

      On “Mythbusters” a few years back, they did a segment on the difference between talking on the phone and driving. It’s pretty telling. (Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3)

      I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stuck behind someone at a green light because they are on their phone and not paying attention to the signal. Also, when I see someone not staying in his or her lane, oftentimes I pass and see the driver is talking on the phone. I agree with Magbill: “People are dying because of people in deep denial.”

  • Jimbo

    I realize i’m 4 months late, but I thought it was worth a post anyway.

    I used to have the same mindset, I need my phone for directions, so I don’t miss an important text/email/call, because I’m bored while driving, etc… I even have two phones, a work phone and a personal phone. I was the billboard of texting while driving.

    You know what cured me? Riding a motorcycle. For starters, you can’t really look at a phone while riding because it takes two hands to ride. And the second part of the cure comes from the fact that if you want to be an old motorcycle rider (or at least not a severely disabled one) you have to maintain a very high level of alertness the entire time you are on a bike. You have to constantly be aware of the other drivers out there, some of whom are using their phones, but most of whom are just not very aware of your presence to begin with. Add to all of those reasons, the fact that there is nothing to do when you are riding most motorcycles (ie no shaving, makeup, reading, talking to a friend, etc) that you get used to focusing only on driving, and you have a winning combination for not using your phone while driving a car.

    I know plenty of people who ride, who also text while driving a cage though. So, it doesnt work for everyone.

  • JHD

    Bottom line is you should not be permitted to drive. You become a hazard to yourself and eveyone else on the road. Why do people like you think it is no big thing and somehow you are above the law with the need to answer the phone whenever it rings and whatever you are doing?

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