Driving Distracted

Drivers who allow themselves to be distracted behind the wheel are responsible for an estimated 1.2 million crashes a year, according to a new study. And surprisingly, the most common distraction isn't a cellphone.

The Foundation for Traffic Safety at the American Automobile Association (AAA) videotaped volunteer drivers who didn't know they were being tested for distracted driving. It found that 92 percent of the drivers would fiddle with radios or CD players, 71 percent ate or drank, 46 percent were involved in personal grooming, and 40 percent read or even wrote. Only about one-third used cellphones.

The report's implication is that states shouldn't rush to bar cell-phone use by drivers. That may well be, but what wasn't measured was the high degree of mental attention that a phone conversation requires, even when a hands-free device is used. Applying lipstick or biting into a Big Mac may take less concentration than talking on a phone. Perhaps a study is needed to test the level of attention and reaction time for different distractions.

Because cellphone use is easy for police to spot, it may be easier to regulate. At the least, barring hand-held phone use in cars would send drivers a message to avoid any distractions.

Few states, however, have acted to restrict cellphone use while driving. New York has the most restrictive measure, while New Jersey only prohibits drivers under 21 from using any sort of cellphone while driving. Massachusetts requires drivers to keep one hand on the wheel when using a cellphone. Of course, such laws are still widely seen as impinging on a "necessity" for drivers today.

At the least, the AAA study should spur states to make awareness of driver distractions a part of driver education. Only six states now include such information.

With 42,000 people killed in crashes each year, each person behind the wheel has an obligation to pay close attention to the road.

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