By Paul Atchley
Two events happened over the last couple of weeks that prompt me to ask whether we would be willing to make one simple change that could dramatically improve our ability to understand distracted driving.
The first event was a “typical” distracted driving event which took place in front of me while I was driving to work. You know the one. The driver proceeds straight while the road curves, crosses over into the on-coming lane, and runs another driver off of the road. (In this case, the other driver maintained control, thankfully avoiding a serious accident.) I swear, and speculate on, the distraction status of the dangerous driver. As I pull up at a stoplight, it is clear he is making calls on his cell. Now what to do? Sign language? Ask for his phone number so I can call and yell at him? Call the police? As drivers, we unfortunately have few options to deal with this sort of issue.
And what if there had been a crash? Who would have known it was due to a distracted driver? If I had been at the scene and had noticed that the driver had been on the phone, I could have said something. But if not, and both drivers had hit head-on, then there would have been no way for the police to know the true cause of the crash. That's a serious problem when it comes to our ability to track the risks of distracted driving.
(A final note of interest, by the way: The vehicle of choice for this distracted drive? A Corvette. You'd think the pilot of such a pricey vehicle might drive more sanely. Then again, it was a Corvette!)
This leads me to the second event, which was a conversation with colleagues at AAA and the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT). My question to my KDOT peers was, “KDOT tracks crashes. Can KDOT access phone records in the event of a crash?” Their answer? No. Not in the U.S.
One of the biggest challenges with distracted driving research in this country today is that it is very difficult to know when a distraction was the cause of a crash.
Who, after all, would willingly admit that they were texting a friend or ordering pizza at the time of an accident? It's rightfully shameful behavior, not to mention legally incriminating. The result? While someone can’t become “un-drunk” after a crash, they can easily become “un-distracted” by putting down his or her phone and denying the distraction.
Burden of Proof
We can't trust self-reporting in these cases. The only way to know for sure if the driver was distracted at the time of the accident is not by relying on the driver's version but to verify it independently. That means looking at phone records. Which leads me to my idea for one simple change: Are we as a nation willing to allow federal privacy laws to change, so that accident investigators can access phone records in the event of a crash?
What would we be willing to do to know the extent of what may be a silent killer? What are your thoughts?