Researchers at University of California, San Diego School of Medicine are launching a new program to help businesses in the San Diego region end the epidemic of distracted driving and the suffering and loss of life that can result.
The program, funded by the California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), is the newest component of “Just Drive – Take Action against Distraction.” It will offer no-cost technical assistance to employers who are interested in crafting or strengthening bans on their employees using cell phones while driving.
“The idea that you can multi-task safely while driving is a myth,” said Linda Hill, MD, MPH, professor of family and preventive medicine and director of Training, Research and Education for Driving Safety (TREDS). “When drivers use a cell phone, they may take their eyes off the road, or take their hands off the steering wheel. The risks posed by these visual or manual distractions are easy to understand.
“But what people appreciate less is the impact of cognitive distractions, caused by engaging the brain in non-driving tasks. Cognitive distraction causes inattention blindness, and as a result, drivers have a greatly impaired ability to attend to and respond to what is in front of them,” she said. Another consequence of distracted driving is tunnel vision, in which drivers may look at but fail to see up to 50 percent of the information in their driving environment.
The National Safety Council (NSC) estimates that more than a fourth of all crashes in the U.S. in 2012 involved cell phone use. The NHTSA estimates that distracted driving was implicated in about 421,000 injuries and 3,328 deaths in 2012.
Research suggests that talking on a cell phone, either hands-free or handheld, is as dangerous as driving with a blood alcohol content of .08, the legal limit in California. There is also new evidence suggesting that voice-to-text messaging is more dangerous than manual texting. Hands-free cell phone use, however, remains legal in most states, including California.
“Our new program addresses two key issues,” Hill said. “One is that many people cite a sense of obligation to work responsibilities as a leading motivator for why they engage in risky driving behaviors. A cell phone policy can remove any doubt of what’s expected and prioritized.
“Cell phone policies also help reduce a company’s risk of liability from being sued for damages should an employee cause harm to another person while driving and using a cell phone,” she added.
For business owners concerned about the bottom line, a NSC survey showed that only 1 percent of companies with total cell-phone-while-driving bans reported seeing a decrease in productivity.
In addition to helping businesses implement cell phone policies, UC San Diego researchers will continue to offer one-hour, no-cost workplace classes on the dangers of distracted driving to businesses and agencies in San Diego in collaboration with the California Highway Patrol.
The Just Drive class has been taught to 4,550 participants in private and public sectors in 2014 to date, and post-class surveys suggest the material was highly effective at increasing awareness about distracted driving and motivating behavioral changes to drive more safely.
The 2015 Just Drive classes and the new cell phone policy assistance program are being funded by the OTS through the NHTSA as part of a nation-wide effort to improve roadway safety by educating the public about the dangers of distracted driving.
To schedule a class or receive more information, visit http://treds.ucsd.edu