Drunk vs. distracted driving

Both are illegal and incredibly dangerous. But which is worse?

According to the National Highway & Transportation Administration, a texting driver is just as impaired as a driver who has consumed four alcoholic beverages. This shocking comparison is reflected in the way Washington State views drivers using electronic devices. If you are spotted holding your phone, that can be enough to get pulled over. Anything beyond one-finger usage of the device is too many, and is illegal. (Don't think you could successfully argue your way out of this, either. Cell phone records will tell the truth if the driver won't.)

Drunk and distracted drivers are dangerous in different ways. Drunk drivers are dangerous because their reaction times are slower, their judgment is impaired, and they may not notice obstacles in the road ahead of them. Distracted drivers are a hazard to themselves and others because they’re often looking away from the road, and even when they do glance up, they might notice a dangerous situation too late.

Most Americans understand by now that it’s dangerous to get into a car with a drunk driver. Fewer understand the dangers of distracted driving. In a 2013 study of high school students, 22% told researchers that they had let a drunk friend drive them around. That may seem high, but it’s a huge improvement over the 40% of students who admitted to being a passenger in a drunk driver’s car in 1991. A recent study showed 99% of drivers are not comfortable riding as a passenger with a texting driver, but during 88% of all car rides, drivers will use their phone at least once. Using a phone while driving increases the chance of an accident 23 times. I can't imagine anyone who would knowingly choose to engage in such a high risk behavior, yet it seems ingrained in drivers. This is why electronics are increasingly viewed as addictive substances.

Laws like Washington's newly updated Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act are seeking to change drivers' behavior and convincing them that using Electronics while driving is as foolish as driving drunk. It will take education and consequences to change this epidemic. Public stigma has greatly reduced drunk driving, as well as the plethora of options to keep drunks off the roads. Hopefully distracted driving will improve as well, though it still seems to worsen.

The truth is that in a life-or-death situation, it only takes one split-second decision to cause—or to prevent—a crash. The seconds that a driver wastes looking at his phone could be the time he needed to slam on the brakes. The moments wasted by a driver with a reaction time impaired by alcohol might be the ones he needed to spend swerving out of the way of an oncoming vehicle.

The only real solution is to not drive drunk and not drive distracted. Until cars are fully autonomous, anything drivers can do to decrease their chance of an accident is well within our means. For more tips on how to avoid distracted driving, take it from this high school student, who won our essay-contest on how to reduce distracted driving.

 

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