“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:
“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.
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?
Mónica Guzmán is a community strategist in startups and media and a digital life columnist for GeekWire. You can find her tweeting away at @moniguzman, subscribe to her public Facebook posts at facebook.com/moniguzman or reach her via email. See a list of her clients on her website. Also see this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.