Dear Minnesota Drivers: Your Cell Phone Conversation Can Wait!

I’m driving down the freeway in Minneapolis and notice the car in front of me struggling to stay in its lane. It’s right tires slowly drift over to the white line, cross it, and enter the shoulder. After an abrupt turn left to steer back into the lane, a similar drifting happens, but now to the right.

“Is this guy drunk?,” I ask my wife. “He’s all over the road.”

I move to the left lane and cautiously pass the erratic driver who happened to be 5-10 miles per hour under the speed limit. 013-HealthPromoCellPhoneSmallMarquee

Glancing over at the driver as I pass, she didn’t appear drunk, though what she was doing sure made it seem that way. In fact, more research is actually showing this to be the case: cell phone usage impairs driving just as much as drunk driving.

But wait, what about hands-free? If both hands are free to drive, isn’t that better? Nope. Another study that compared drunk drivers and hand-free cellphone drivers found they impaired driving equally. If you’re looking for even more evidence from research on cellphone usage and driving, it’s summarized in this article.

Unfortunately, unlike a number of east coast states where I used to live, Minnesota does not prohibit cell phone usage while driving, sans those with a learner permit or provisional license. (Though law does prohibit texting, which seems like a pretty obvious thing for drivers to avoid, but I’ve seen my fair share of violators this week alone.)

Why does this bother me so much?

A few facts about car accidents and distracted driving in Minnesota:

  • On an average day in MN: 213 crashes; 1 death; 84 injuries; and a daily cost to society of $4,351,026.
  • Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death among young people.
  • 17% of all crashes were due to high speed, 10% were because of distraction (about 17,500 each year). (One can obviously make a claim these two causes are highly related too.)
  • 18% of the 387 traffic fatalities in 2013 were from distracted driving. Distraction also caused 8,034 injuries, the highest number by any one factor.

But, I think my biggest frustration with cellphone usage while driving is something that isn’t necessarily captured in the stats I just listed. As we’ve seen with a number of other technologies, for all the positive benefits they have, there are also a number of unintended consequences. I wrote about a few of them in this blog about multi-tasking, and how the majority of people fail to spot a clown on a unicycle while walking and talking on their cellphone. Constantly being on our phones, whether talking, texting, checking email, whatever, takes our attention away from the present. In the case of driving, being in the present is pretty dang important. But, it’s also important for all aspects of life. When we aren’t present we miss out on those small opportunities of enjoyment and fulfillment.

The onus isn’t just on the cellphone user, though. A world of instant gratification means there is more and more of an expectation by others that others need to respond to a message, phone call, or email as quickly as possible. If it goes unanswered for more than 30 minutes, something is wrong or we’re being disrespectful or we’re not providing good customer service. This might even be at the expense of one’s own personal safety, which we’re unfortunately happy to risk for the gratification of being connected.

So, let’s remember that every message isn’t urgent. It can wait. Be present: your friends, family, and other drivers will thank you.

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