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How to put the brakes on distracted driving
Distraction is a way of life in today's world of fast-paced technology and constant news updates. Looking at any updates coming in on a phone or tablet requires looking down or over, and even this seemingly insignificant motion can be deadly. - photo by Mandy Morgan
When Joel Feldman first learned his daughter had been hit and killed by a distracted driver, he went through feelings of shock, anger and hatred toward the driver who had hit her.

The more he thought about it, however, the more he realized how he had done the same things the driver had done.

"I would text occasionally, I would email which is probably worse I would eat in the car, I'd steer with my knees, I'd program my GPS when I was driving, and I came to a realization I had just been very, very lucky I'd never killed anyone," Feldman said.

Casey Feldman was 21 years old when she was hit July 17, 2009, crossing a road in Ocean City, New Jersey, by a car whose driver took his eyes off the road for three seconds to reach for a drink.

The driver most likely experienced "inattention blindness," which can take place when a driver is so distracted they don't see up to 50 percent of their driving environment, like a pedestrian or red lights, according to the National Safety Council.

Multitasking is a way of life in today's world of convenient, hand-held technology. With instant communication and information at our fingertips, distracted driving has become a serious safety and health issue. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31 percent of U.S. drivers ages 18 to 64 report having read or sent a text or emails while driving in the last 30 days, reports Time. However, the problem is more far-reaching than using a cellphone there is food, chatting with passengers, adjusting the radio or the car's GPS that also take attention away from driving.

Safe vs. lucky

After realizing he had been more lucky than safe as a driver himself, Feldman became involved in addressing distracted driving. He started speaking to groups about the problem and then working with the Children's Hospital in Philadelphia to develop what he felt was lacking at the time: EndDD, an effective distracted driving awareness program.

"We, as a society, are really letting down our kids. We're building cars now where we have technology that's adding distraction," Feldman said.

Another study by the CDC shows that parents who drive distracted or recklessly are more likely to have children who also drive distracted. Seventy to 80 percent of children will say their parents drive distracted, Feldman said.

Feldman travels the country with EndDD to high schools sharing his personal experience and distributing a Family Safe Driving Agreement, which teenagers and their families can print out and sign. The agreement outlines steps to safer and less distracted driving.

"It's not all that hard to figure out how to drive distraction-free, the hard part is getting our collective experience of having done it and gotten away with it so often that we think nothing will happen to us," Feldman said.

Like a New Year's resolution, there needs to be a plan and a commitment to not drive distracted for any real change to be made, Feldman said. But where does the commitment come from? For Feldman it was having his daughter killed, but it shouldn't have to take such a drastic experience to change everyone's habits, he said.

Motivation to change the way people think about distracted driving was illustrated in a study done by five universities in the Pacific Northwest: Oregon State University, Washington State University, the University of Washington, the University of Alaska Anchorage and the University of Idaho.

University students gave presentations about distracted driving to high school students across the region to see if there was a change in how teens perceived distraction while driving.

"There are dozens of distractions that have an impact on our performance, like technology-based tasks, but also manipulating radio stations or climate controls. (Teens) didn't perceive those as distractions, they saw them as a normal part of driving," said David Hurwitz, an associate professor at OSU and lead researcher of the study sponsored by PacTrans.

After the presentations, students' perceptions were much attuned to what counted as a distraction, a huge step in reducing the things that distract drivers specifically these new, young drivers, Hurwitz said.

Risk of multitasking

So why do people think they can drive while doing other things?

"We all think we can multitask, but what we really do is switch attention from one thing to another," Feldman said. "We switch attention, so we're concentrating on driving and then we're thinking about our phone call. We're running on the treadmill perhaps, and then we're thinking about the phone."

When it comes to driving, if you add just one more thing for a person to do, like listening to anything, the amount of brain power going toward driving decreases by about 37 percent, according to a study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

"If we switch attention and we do two things at the same time, we do each of those tasks poorly, we do each of the things more poorly than we would've if we had just concentrated on one," Feldman said.

In a recent study it was found that cellphone usage and other distractions for parents while watching their children led to playground accidents.

More than 200,000 children ages 14 and younger are treated in U.S. emergency rooms each year due to playground-related injuries, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the study reported.

"Surprisingly, cell phones were not the biggest distraction," the study's authors wrote. "Talking with other adults accounted for 33 percent of all distractions, while electronic devices such as cell phones were responsible for 30 percent. The remaining 37 percent of distractions included eating, drinking, looking in a book bag/purse, reading and other activities."

Smartphone hazards

AT&T released results of a study in May that revealed an alarming seven in 10 people engage in smartphone activities while driving.

According to the study, 61 percent reported texting while driving, one-third of people reported emailing while driving, 28 percent said they surf the net, 27 percent use Facebook and 17 percent take pictures or selfies. Other driving distractions included Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat usage, shooting videos and video chatting.

"The use of a cellphone when driving doesn't just take their attention, but their concentration on the road," said Ramsey Bahrawy, a personal injury lawyer in Massachusetts. "It comes down to convenience versus the hazards of using these devices."

Although most people feel confident in taking their eyes off of the road, just like the driver in Casey's case, even just a few seconds can be deadly.

"If you can reduce your glances away from the road to less than two seconds, you'll be a much safer driver," Hurwitz said. "You're four to 24 times more likely to be involved in a crash if it's longer than two seconds. That starts to become more important when it's more than that amount of time."

The example of parents and drivers, as well as the designing of automobiles with better protection against distraction are some of the major solutions that could help with the many dangers of it, Hurwitz said.
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