The Dallas Morning News

Driven to distractio­n

Smartphone addiction leads multitaski­ng drivers of any age to do dumb things

- By RUSSELL HENK

Our cars keep getting better, but our driving seems to be getting worse.

The rate of distracted driving deaths rose twice as fast as overall crash deaths in the first half of this decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You could argue that human intelligen­ce isn’t keeping pace with artificial intelligen­ce.

Developing driver IQ, of course, begins at a very young age. And so does smartphone ownership.

A Nielsen study in 2017 found that nearly half of kids got their first smartphone­s when they were 10 to 12 years old. They will have had five or six years to perfect their wireless skills, creating what amounts to a functional addiction, by the time they reach legal driving age. Scary.

Fortunatel­y, teenagers no longer flock to driver’s license offices to secure permits right away. In fact, a growing number of those eligible to drive at age 16 are instead waiting until they turn 18, deterred mostly

by a lack of interest in driving and an aversion to its cost.

We know that new drivers benefit from at least 12 months of supervised onroad experience to establish basic driving abilities. Recent data indicate that longerterm crash rates are actually higher for those who wait until age 18 than for those who start driving when they’re 16 or 17.

And, two years waiting to venture out as a new driver is also two years spent growing more comfortabl­e with — and addicted to — a smartphone.

In recent years, texting while driving among 18 to 29yearold drivers actually declined modestly from 71 percent to 58 percent. But at the same time, those who browsed social media websites while driving nearly doubled, jumping from 21 percent to 41 percent. The number who posted on those sites while driving grew from 20 percent to 30 percent.

Considerin­g all of that, it’s easy to assume that distracted driving is a youthonly problem. But it’s not. Even though adults may have mastered vehicular operation, they may botch even the most basic smartphone functions. When that fumbling happens behind the wheel, safe driving experience means little.

If we’re expending more time and attention on distractio­ns, we’re investing less in the driving task. It’s a zerosum propositio­n.

To stop this, we’ve long relied on traditiona­l strategies of laws and associated penalties, parental restrictio­ns, and more recently, peer influence. But new research suggests we may have a new motivator: hamburgers and pizza.

The Teens in the Driver Seat Program, developed by the Texas A&M Transporta­tion Institute, launched a smartphone app in 2016 that awarded prizes for distractio­nfree driving. We found significan­t reductions in distracted driving when teen drivers focused on those rewards (including food) rather than their smartphone­s. Distracted driving is an issue for everybody, but more so for teenagers as they form lifelong driving patterns. We can only hope that those habits don’t lead them to fail the driver IQ test.

Russell Henk is a senior research engineer and manager of the youth transporta­tion safety program at the Texas A&M Transporta­tion Institute. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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Paul Lachine/newsart.com

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