By Rep. Kate Webb
On Tuesday, I went to a reception sponsored by the Vermont Association for Justice at the State House. The event featured a poster of eighteen smiling faces surrounding the words “Faces of Distracted Driving.” I stared at the faces and asked someone to take a picture of my face above this poster. I sent the picture off to my daughters and a few friends and we laughed. I then sent a note back explaining that all those faces were people who had died from an accident caused by distracted driving. Suddenly, that photo took on a different meaning. Any of us who use our phones in cars could be the next victim or worse, could destroy someone else’s life.
On Friday, we passed a bill limiting the use of hand-held electronic devices to hands-free use. We added an amendment that would permit activation or deactivation of devices as long as they were securely mounted in the vehicle. The bill is now on its way to the Senate where its future is uncertain.
I am a longtime mobile phone user, purchasing my first in 1991. But the singular function of a mobile phone sparingly used in 1991 is a far cry from the complex technology, capacity, and culture we find ourselves in today. It is a factory for distraction, and though many complain that caring for children, eating a bagel or talking with passengers can also be distracting, nothing seems to compare to the increase in distraction brought to us by our smart phones.
The National Highway Traffic Study Administration released a report on distracted driving in April 2013. It stated “the root of driving performance lies in how well drivers visually attend to the road in order to perceive events when they occur.” A study of driving behaviors found that problems lie less in the talking and more in the handling of phones that reduce our visual attention to the road. A Virginia Tech study goes on to note that it is this combined visual, manual, and cognitive subtasks in device operation that dramatically increase the risk of an accident. One cyclist reported to the committee that he now fears hand-held device use more than large trucks.
The effect on our new and teenage drivers is more concerning. A University of Michigan study found that teens are twenty-six times more likely to text while driving than their parents think. In addition, more than one in ten teens said that they update or check social media while driving. At the same time, a survey of teens and parents indicated that, in general, parents who engage in distracting behaviors while driving more frequently have teenagers who also frequently engage in these behaviors.
I voted for this bill and if passed, Vermont will join 12 others states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands prohibiting all drivers from using hand-held electronic devices while driving. Both the auto and tech industries have responded with many ways to be hands-free.
Please join Joan Lenes and me Tuesday mornings 7:30-8:30am at Next Door Café in February and April and Bruegger’s in March and May.