“Take out your cell phone and look at it. Is your last text message worth your life?”
With this question, West Texas mother Jeanne Brown got the attention of the audience gathered in San Antonio on April 26, 2012 for the first Texas Distracted Driving Summit.
Brown’s seventeen year old daughter, Alex Brown, died of traumatic injuries on her way to class in her last semester of high school. Alex was texting three different friends as she drove her truck down a rural highway. Her parents and several other families of victims of distracted driving, including conference organizer Jennifer Smith, have dedicated time to letting others know about the huge risk.
USAA and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) sponsored the conference held at the Westin La Cantera Resort Conference Center. Carol Rawson, TxDOT Traffic Operations Division Director, hosted the event, with TxDOT staff members in attendance.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator, Georgia Chakiris and University of Kansas Psychology Professor Paul Atchley shared some startling facts:
- 1 in 4 crashes in Texas are caused by driver distraction.
- 3,092 fatalities in the U.S. in 2010 were distraction affected.
- 8 years old is the average age of owning a first cell phone.
- 16-24 year olds use cell phones the most, both talking and texting
- The median number of Teen’s daily text messages: 60
- The median number of daily text messages by older girls/young women: 100
- 97% of young adults text and drive
The volume and sorrow of the stories from families of victims heard at the Summit was likely life-changing for many in attendance. At the same time, the analyses presented and the ideas for solutions provided a lot of cause for hopefulness.
Cell phone use for many reasons is a pro-social behavior. We connect with friends and family using our cell phones. We check on each other and make sure each other is ok.
The consensus amongst the conference organizers and experts is that the solutions must also be pro-social, driven by concern for each other. Like in the ‘Friends don’t let friends drive drunk’ campaign, friends, in one approach, can avoid texting if they know a friend is probably driving; or they can text “If you’re driving, don’t respond.”
Attorney Todd Clement urged businesses to enact and enforce anti-texting policies to protect against distracted driving liability on the job.
Keynote speaker U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LeHood queried the room “How many in this room use your cell phone when driving?” The vast majority replied that they do. But Secretary LaHood provided hope. He looked back at the history of progress in dealing with wearing seatbelts and observed that now 86% of people now buckle up. “It took twenty years. The distracted driving awareness campaigns began just three and a half years ago and now 18 states have passed laws. You can enforce the laws prohibiting texting while driving and that will help.”
The message was not lost on BikeTexas staff members Donna Hoffman and Mark Stine who attended the conference at the invitation of TxDOT.
Every tragic story of a distracted driving death can be matched by one of a cyclist or pedestrian fatality. A higher awareness of the risks and more demonstrated commitment to safe behaviors by everyone on the road, combined with anti-texting policies and enforcement can make a difference and save lives.