cover story

Mar 13, 2017 Launch Digital Flipbook
woman texting while driving
Zoom In
Fullscreen
CREDIT: Michael Krinke/E+/Getty images

Driven to Distraction

Drivers are getting increasingly distracted by technology behind the wheel—with tragic consequences. Could a new roadside enforcement tool for police make a difference? 
Video
Distracted Driving

In November, 20-year-old Onasi Olio-Rojas was live-streaming on Facebook while weaving in and out of traffic and speeding at more than 100 miles per hour on a crowded Rhode Island roadway. He lost control of his Honda Civic, smashing into a garbage truck and a concrete barrier. Pulled from the mangled wreckage, he was critically injured, but managed to survive. 

Six days later, 18-year-old Brooke Miranda Hughes wasn’t as lucky. She was also live-streaming on Facebook when a tractor-trailer slammed into the back of her Suzuki Forenza on a Pennsylvania highway. Hughes and her 19-year-old passenger were both killed. 

Horrific accidents like these are evidence of what authorities say has become a crisis of distracted driving. Drivers are using apps and social media, texting and talking on their phones, and interacting with increasingly complex multimedia on their car dashboards when they should be keeping their eyes on the road. The result is the largest annual percentage increase in traffic fatalities in 50 years.

“This is a crisis that needs to be addressed now,” says Mark Rosekind, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

When distracted driving entered the national consciousness a decade ago, the problem mainly involved people who made calls or sent texts from their cellphones. Now a host of new technologies are taking drivers’ eyes—or at least their minds—off the traffic around them. Car Wi-Fi is common, as are built-in systems for giving voice commands to phones, and drivers are mounting tablets and smartphones on their dashboards. Snapchat allows drivers to post photos that record the speed of the vehicle. The navigation app Waze rewards drivers with points when they report traffic jams and accidents. 

In November, 20-year-old Onasi Olio-Rojas was live-streaming on Facebook. He was also weaving in and out of traffic. And he was speeding at more than 100 miles per hour on a crowded Rhode Island roadway.

Onasi lost control of his Honda Civic. He smashed into a garbage truck and a concrete barrier. He had to be pulled from the mangled wreckage. He was critically injured. But he survived. 

Six days later, 18-year-old Brooke Miranda Hughes wasn’t as lucky. She was also live-streaming on Facebook. Suddenly, a tractor-trailer slammed into the back of her Suzuki Forenza on a Pennsylvania highway. Hughes and her 19-year-old passenger were both killed. 

Horrific accidents like these are evidence of what authorities say has become a crisis of distracted driving. 

Drivers are increasingly texting, talking, and using apps and social media while they are driving. They also interact with increasingly complex multimedia on their car dashboards when they should be keeping their eyes on the road. The result is the largest annual percentage increase in traffic fatalities in 50 years.

“This is a crisis that needs to be addressed now,” says Mark Rosekind, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Distracted driving entered the national consciousness a decade ago. Back then, the problem mainly involved people who made calls or sent texts from their cellphones. Now a host of new technologies are taking drivers’ eyes, or at least their minds, off the traffic around them. 

Car Wi-Fi is common. Built-in systems for giving voice commands to phones are also getting more popular. Drivers are mounting tablets and smartphones on their dashboards. Snapchat allows drivers to post photos that record the speed of the vehicle. The navigation app Waze rewards drivers with points when they report traffic jams and accidents. 

Surge in Deaths

It’s all led to a boom in internet use in vehicles that safety experts say is contributing to a surge in highway deaths.

After steady declines over the past four decades, highway fatalities began to tick up in 2015, the most recent year for which numbers are available. That year, more than 35,000 people died on American roads—a 7 percent increase over the previous year. 

The government hasn’t yet determined how many of those traffic deaths were caused by
distraction. But insurance companies, which closely track car accidents, are convinced that the increasing use of electronic devices is the biggest cause, according to Robert Gordon of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

It’s not just drivers who are putting lives at risk. Several deadly train crashes over the past decade have been attributed to train engineers who were distracted by texting. In 2008, 25 people were killed and 102 injured when two trains in California crashed into each other after an engineer who was texting missed a red light.

It’s all led to a boom in internet use in vehicles. Safety experts say this is contributing to a surge in highway deaths.

After steady declines over the past four decades, highway fatalities began to tick up in 2015, the most recent year for which numbers are available. That year, more than 35,000 people died on American roads. That’s a 7 percent increase over the previous year. 

The government hasn’t yet determined how many of those traffic deaths were caused by distraction, but insurance companies closely track car accidents. They are convinced that the increasing use of electronic devices is the biggest cause, according to Robert Gordon of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

It’s not just drivers who are putting lives at risk. Over the past decade, several deadly train crashes have been attributed to distraction. In 2008, two trains crashed into each other in California when a train engineer was texting and missed a red light. Twenty-five people were killed and 102 were injured.

Onasi Olio-Rojas and the wreck of his car
Zoom In
Fullscreen

Onasi Olio-Rojas, 20, (left) was critically injured in a distracted driving accident in November. Above, the wreck of his car. 

CREDIT: Facebook (Onasi Olio-Rojas); Courtesy WPRI.COM (car accident)

Texting & Selfies

Lawmakers have tried to stop distracted driving, without much success. Since 2007, 46 states and the District of Columbia have banned texting while driving; 14 states and D.C. have banned the use of handheld devices while driving (see map, below). Yet the problem seems to be getting worse. Americans confess in surveys that they’re still texting while driving, as well as using Facebook and Snapchat and taking selfies. In a 2015 survey by Erie Insurance, a third of drivers admitted to texting while driving, and three-quarters said they’d seen other drivers do it.

Lawmakers have tried to stop distracted driving, without much success. Since 2007, 46 states and the District of Columbia have banned texting while driving. Fourteen states and D.C. have banned the use of handheld devices while driving. Yet the problem seems to be getting worse. Americans confess in surveys that they’re still texting while driving. They are also using Facebook, Snapchat, and taking selfies. In a 2015 survey by Erie Insurance, a third of drivers admitted to texting while driving. Three-quarters said they’d seen other drivers do it. 

Despite bans, a third of drivers admit to texting while driving.

The federal government wants more phones to include a “driver mode” that would block features that create distractions for drivers. Several states have increased the penalties for distracted driving, hoping to deter people from using their phones. But authorities say it’s very hard to enforce distracted-driving laws, mainly because police must prove that someone they pulled over was, in fact, sending a text or using an app. 

Now, lawmakers in New York State are proposing a controversial solution: giving police officers a new device called a Textalyzer that’s the digital equivalent of the Breathalyzer, the test that’s long been used by police to test the blood alcohol level of drivers (see “Meet the Textalyzer,” below). An officer arriving at the scene of an accident could use the Textalyzer to tap into a phone to check for recent activity. Failure to submit to the test could lead to the suspension of a driver’s license, similar to the consequences for refusing a Breathalyzer.

“We need something on the books where people’s behavior can change,” says New York State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, who co-sponsored the bill. If police have a Textalyzer, he says, “people are going to be more afraid to put their hands on the cellphone.”

The federal government wants more phones to include a “driver mode.” That would block features that create distractions for drivers. Several states have increased the penalties for distracted driving. Their intent is to deter people from using their phones. But authorities say it’s very hard to enforce distracted-driving laws. The main reason is that police must prove that someone they pulled over was sending a text or using an app. 

Now, lawmakers in New York State are proposing a controversial solution: giving police officers a new device called a Textalyzer. It would be the digital equivalent of the Breathalyzer. The Breathalyzer has long been used by police to test the blood alcohol level of drivers. An officer arriving at the scene of an accident could use the Textalyzer to tap into a phone to check for recent activity. Failure to submit to the test could lead to the suspension of a driver’s license. 

“We need something on the books where people’s behavior can change,” says New York State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, who co-sponsored the bill. If police have a Textalyzer, he says, “people are going to be more afraid to put their hands on the cellphone.”

The New Drunk Driving?

Many public safety advocates say the current crisis with distracted driving is similar to the challenge the nation faced tackling drunk driving in the 1980s. 

Distracted driving “is not being treated as seriously as drunk driving, and it needs to be,” says Candace Lightner, the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who helped found a new group last year, Partnership for Distraction-Free Driving. 

Distracted driving is “dangerous, devastating, crippling, and it’s a killer,” Lightner says, “and still socially acceptable.”

Many public safety advocates say the current crisis with distracted driving is similar to the challenge the nation faced tackling drunk driving in the 1980s. 

Distracted driving “is not being treated as seriously as drunk driving, and it needs to be,” says Candace Lightner, the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She helped found a new group last year called Partnership for Distraction-Free Driving. 

Distracted driving is “dangerous, devastating, crippling, and it’s a killer,” Lightner says, “and still socially acceptable.”

With reporting by Neal E. Boudette and Matt Richtel of The New York Times.

Zoom In
Fullscreen
CREDIT: Jim McMahon (map)

BY THE NUMBERS

    • 5

      AVERAGE NUMBER of seconds your eyes are off the road when sending a text. If you’re going 55 mph, that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field.

      SOURCE: Distraction.gov
    • 660,000

      NUMBER of drivers in the U.S. using cellphones while driving right now.

      SOURCE: Distraction.gov
    • 30%

      PERCENTAGE of drivers who say they’ve texted while driving; 75 percent say they’ve seen other drivers do it.

      SOURCE: Erie Insurance, 2015 Survey

Zoom In
Fullscreen
CREDIT: Illustration by Ryan Etter
Meet the Textalyzer
It’s a controversial new high-tech tool that could catch drivers texting behind the wheel 

The Textalyzer, a device that would let police determine at the scene of an accident if a driver was using a phone, is the brainchild of Ben Lieberman. Lieberman’s 19-year-old son, Evan, was killed in a 2011 accident in New York State caused by distracted driving. 

After his son’s death, Lieberman spent months trying to gain access to phone records, which ultimately showed that the driver of the car his son was in had been texting. 

“We kept hearing there’s no such thing as a Breathalyzer for distracted driving,” he says, “so we set out to create one—and to pass legislation to support it.”

But the idea of letting police tap into phones on the spot—without a warrant from a court—makes privacy advocates nervous. 

“It really invites police to seize phones without justification or warrant,” says Donna Lieberman (no relation to Ben), the executive director of the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Privacy advocates say the Textalyzer might violate drivers’ rights.

In 2014, the Supreme Court (in Riley v. California) ruled that police can’t search the contents of a cellphone without a warrant, even after an arrest. But supporters of the Textalyzer say the device wouldn’t violate this standard because it wouldn’t be able to access any private information; it would simply tell the police, within about 90 seconds, whether anyone has activated a keyboard, typed on a keyboard, or swiped the screen of the device. As an additional privacy protection, the officer doesn’t even need to touch the phone; he can use the device in close proximity to it.

The authors of the New York bill that would authorize police to use the Textalyzer say they’ve based the concept on the same “implied consent” legal theory that allows police to use the Breathalyzer: Because driving is a privilege, rather than a right, it comes with conditions and can be revoked. When drivers get a license, they are, in effect, consenting in advance to a Breathalyzer, or else they risk the suspension of their license.

Other states, including Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, have already expressed interest in the Textalyzer.  

Ben Lieberman believes that increasing the likelihood of getting caught would go a long way toward preventing people from using their phones behind the wheel. The Textalyzer, he says, “could be an integral part of seeing a vast improvement.” —Patricia Smith

Want to See More?

Subscribe to Upfront for full access to articles, lesson plans, skills sheets, videos, cartoons, and other resources.

Already a subscriber?