Warning: this is a rant. Recently I was on my way to meet a physician for coffee to talk about my work in social media and health. While driving in front of Children’s Hospital, I saw a car going more slowly than I’d expect, changing the traffic patterns. We stopped at the light, it turned green, and she didn’t move. I looked over and saw her punching away at her phone, composing a text message. I laid on the horn. I pointed to her phone. I screamed! She looked surprised and confused that she’d done anything dangerous. I think she wondered why I was fanatical. You’re 23 times more likely to have a crash while texting and driving compared to someone who is simply driving. I wish I could have mentioned that, too.

No one was hurt, no one was injured that morning. Yet it appeared the last thing this driver was thinking about was the road, the traffic light, the children and their parents crossing at the walk while entering and leaving the hospital. Imagine.

Texting while driving was responsible for 16,000 deaths in a 6 year period. Over 5,000 lives were lost in 2009 alone and almost 1/2 million were injured in accidents related to distracted driving.

You know what I mean though, right? You can spot those text-ers on the road. We’ve all been behind someone on a side street or the freeway watching them swerve, veer, or not follow traffic flow. Or think about the drivers who turn abruptly without using a turn signal. And when we look over, we see they’re on the phone or punching away at a keyboard. Often, these insidious choices are obvious and for all to see.

If you think you’re a fantastic multi-tasker, think again. Texting and driving kills (video).

I’ve had it with people who are still using their phones to text and drive at the same time. Oprah and I couldn’t agree more: End Distracted Driving now.

How are we going to make this change? How will we get people off their phones and back to the road? How many children and adults will die or be injured first?

I don’t think fear works, and unfortunately a ranting blog post may not be a perfect strategy either. It’s possible focusing on safety isn’t the answer. As one safety researcher (pediatrician) said to me, “Maybe there is something psychologically protective in NOT worrying about safety all the time.” She went on to postulate that talking about safety may not be the best angle to take to improve this. That spending our energy on figuring out what factors actually DO impact behavior may be better (changing normative beliefs or law enforcement fines).

Yes worrying all the time isn’t so good for us, either. So how do we get people to put their phone in the backseat, deep in their purse, or in the off mode while in the car?

I contend texting and driving is a new inconvenient truth: distracted driving is a selfish, dangerous, and morally unjust act. You simply put others (in and out of your car) at risk. Data from 2009 studying real drivers backs up my claim. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute studied the effect of distracted driving using naturalistic driving studies (sophisticated cameras and instrumentation in vehicles) with drivers in cars and trucks on the outcome of a crash or near-crash event. They studied drivers for more than 6 million miles of driving. Here’s the skivvy:

When in a truck:

  • You’re 23.2 times more likely to crash or have a near crash event if you’re text messaging and driving.
  • You’re 6.7 times more likely to risk a crash or near crash is you’re using or reaching for electronic device.
  • You’re 5.9 times more likely to risk a crash or near crash if you’re dialing a cell phone.

When in a car:

  • 2.8 times as likely to risk a crash or near crash if dialing cell phone.
  • 1.3 times as likely to crash if talking/listening on cell phone.
  • 1.4 times as likely to crash if reaching for an object.

By the data, targeting texting may be the effort most necessary. Researchers clearly point out that cell phone use on it’s own isn’t nearly as dangerous. The reason they feel, is that the results show “conclusively that a real key to significantly improving safety is keeping you eyes on the road.” Cell phone use (with voice activation) doesn’t intervene with it. Grabbing for your ringing cell phone does. As does texting. When subjects were texting while driving, they had the longest duration of time with eyes off the the road (4.6 seconds). “This equates to a driver traveling the length of a football field at 55 mph without looking at the roadway.”

What do you think, have you taken Oprah’s pledge? Do you text and drive? Did you hear about the bus driver driving with a cell phone in each hand? Is that beep or buzz of your phone enough to cause you to reach for it while barreling down the road?