Sandy Tschosik, RN
St. Alexius’ Community Health Services Coordinator
I recently attended the North Dakota Safety and Health conference and had the privilege of listening to keynote speaker David Teater, senior director, Transportation Initiatives for the National Safety Council (NSC). He presented on the topic of cell phone use and distracted driving. 
The NSC reported that in 2008 there were 200,000 accidents involving texting and 1.4 million crashes involving talking on cell phones, which caused thousands of fatalities and life-changing injuries. With the growing number of people utilizing cell phones today, these numbers could be even higher.
Although many drivers acknowledge that texting, emailing and talking on their cell phone while driving is dangerous, drivers continue to engage in these behaviors. Unfortunately, we seem to pride ourselves in our ability to “multitask,” whether it is at work, home or while driving in the car. Furthermore, many feel that utilizing a hands-free device is less distracting, thus a “safer” way to stay connected or productive.
Safe driving requires more than keeping your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel. One needs to remain cognitively focused on the task by keeping your mind on the road. Multitasking is a myth. The human brain cannot perform two tasks at the same time. The brain just switches between tasks, which leads us to believe we are doing two things at once. When the brain is overloaded by two cognitive tasks, one task becomes primary and the other becomes secondary.
While using a handheld or a hands-free cell phone while driving, the cognitive attention to driving can become secondary to a phone conversation. When driving becomes the secondary task, our driving becomes impaired, and we lose our focus and attention. Hands-free or not, we are distracted and experience “inattention blindness” where we can “look at” but not “see” objects. We are so focused on the cell phone conversation that we fail to effectively monitor our surroundings, identify hazards and respond to unexpected situations. Cell phone use while driving causes us to respond and react slower. A study done at University of Utah reported that drivers using cell phones had slower reaction times than impaired drivers whose blood alcohol was at .08, the legal intoxication limit.
Several things distract us while we are driving and increase our risk of having an accident: applying makeup, eating, reaching for your child’s toy, adjusting the radio or MP3 player, reading a map, etc. Specific to cell phones however, research indicates talking on a cell phone increases the likelihood of crashing by four times. Furthermore, you are eight to 23 times more likely to get in an accident if you text at the wheel.
In January 2004, a young woman drove through a red light while talking on her cell phone. She slammed into another vehicle which was crossing with the green light. The vehicle she hit was not the first car to go through the intersection, it was the third or fourth. The police determined the driver never did slow down and was traveling 48 mph when she crashed into the other vehicle. As a result, a twelve year old boy lost his life. That boy was David Teater’s son.
Using a cell phone or any electronic device while driving is a serious public health threat. Please keep your focus on the road while driving. Safely pull over if you need to use your phone. Together we can make a difference by making our roads safer.