Heartbreaking stories abound of innocents being killed or injured by distracted drivers. This trend is a symptom of a deeper problem.
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Every child has dreams. Xzavier Davis-Bilbo, a 5-year-old growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, surely did. With his energy, enthusiasm and love for sports, his mother Valetta looked forward to cheering him on as a star football player one day.
Yet he will never be able to suit up for a single game.
After school, Xzavier was walking down his street with his sister to play at a park. Without warning, he was struck by a car. The driver was a teenage girl. She had driven through a four-way stop and veered over to the wrong side of the road, hitting him.
She had been texting.
The child—who barely started grade school—became paralyzed from the diaphragm down. He is now only able to move around in a motorized wheelchair.
This account was presented in Werner Herzog’s 2013 documentary “From One Second to the Next.” Sadly, Xzavier’s story is not a freak occurrence. Tragedies like it, caused by texting and driving, happen every day.
• April 2016: A 19-year-old girl veered off a road in Florida, smashing her car into a tree. She was killed instantly. She had just sent a text message to her boyfriend stating, “I can’t wait to see you this weekend!” (Daily Mail).
• July 2017: A Michigan State University coach was texting just prior to fatally striking a car with his pickup truck. He killed a mother and her 5-year-old daughter. Records show the man sent six text messages and received 17 during the 20 minutes before the collision (Lansing State Journal).
• September 2017: A young man traveling through Palmer Township, Pennsylvania, texted his friends from behind the wheel to discuss where they wanted to have dinner that night. While distracted, his vehicle drifted onto the shoulder of the road and struck a 12-year-old girl walking home from an ice cream shop. She was killed by the accident (The Morning Call).
Many innocent people have been injured or killed by texting drivers. Some victims were pedestrians, others motorists. But all were simply minding their own business. And of course some drivers injure or kill only themselves.
Continually seeing the suffering of victims and their loved ones, despite so many warnings and tragedies, begs the question, why does this keep happening?
According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nine people die and more than 1,000 are injured each day in distracted driving accidents in America. Yet it can be difficult to pin down exactly how many deaths come specifically from texting.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 448 deaths were linked to mobile phone use in 2015. Yet this number may be lower than reality. Bloomberg reported: “The data from each state is compiled from accident reports filed by local police, most of which don’t prompt officers to consider mobile phone distraction as an underlying cause. Only 11 states use reporting forms that contain a field for police to tick-off mobile-phone distraction, while 27 have a space to note distraction in general as a potential cause of the accident.
“The fine print seems to make a difference. Tennessee, for example, has one of the most thorough accident report forms in the country, a document that asks police to evaluate both distractions in general and mobile phones in particular. Of the 448 accidents…84 occurred in Tennessee. That means, a state with 2 percent of the country’s population accounted for 19 percent of its phone-related driving deaths. As in polling, it really depends on how you ask the question.”
Distracted driving can be difficult to detect and police, especially when compared with drunk driving. After being pulled over, a drunk driver blows into a breathalyzer to prove he is drunk. A texting driver can easily get away with saying he was not using his phone. An intoxicated person can show many warning signs of their condition even before entering their vehicle. One cannot predict whether a motorist who seems normal one moment could be fatally distracted the next.
A survey of drivers shows that this habit is pervasive. Emergency road service provider AAA reported: “More than 2 in 5 drivers (42 percent) admit to reading a text message or email while driving in the past 30 days, while 12 percent report doing this fairly often or regularly. Nearly 1 in 3 drivers (32 percent) admit to typing or sending a text or email over the past month, while eight percent say they do so fairly often or regularly.” One can wonder how many others simply chose not to admit it.
A Zendrive study found that “during an hour-long trip, drivers spent an average of 3.5-minutes using their phones. This finding is frightening, especially when you consider that a 2-second distraction is long enough to increase your likelihood of crashing by over 20-times. In other words, that’s equivalent to 105 opportunities an hour that you could nearly kill yourself and/or others” (emphasis added).
State governments have taken various steps attempting to solve this problem. For example, 90 “texting zones” have been added along highways in New York, allowing motorists to pull off and park to safely use mobile devices.
Texting while driving has been banned in many states. A texting ban bill is presently being considered by the Florida House. The Associated Press reported: “Currently, Florida law says texting by noncommercial drivers is a secondary offense—law enforcement officers must see another violation like speeding or an illegal lane change before they cite a driver for texting. The bill would make texting a primary offense.”
Yet, Florida would not be the first state to do so. In fact, it would be one of the last! According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, “Currently, 47 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban text messaging for all drivers. All but 4 have primary enforcement. Of the 3 states without an all driver texting ban, 2 prohibit text messaging by novice drivers.”
Stricter laws no doubt have positive effects. Yet the fact that people continue to text and drive despite it already being widely prohibited shows that it cannot be stopped by laws alone.
Some blame phone companies for not doing more to prevent people from endangering others. Various apps and safety features have been developed to combat distracted driving. Apple debuted a mode in a recent update of its mobile operating system called “Do Not Disturb While Driving.” The Telegraph reported that it “uses a number of signals, such as the iPhone’s accelerometer, the rate at which it finds and loses nearby Wi-Fi networks, and GPS to try to detect when it thinks you are driving.”
Apps intended to help include AT&T DriveMode, Textecution, DriveSafe.ly, Text-STAR, and DriveScribe. They offer features such as the ability to send automatic replies to text messages received while driving, informing the person you will get back to them later, and the option for incoming messages to be read audibly to eliminate the need to look at your screen. The user can respond to the person by verbally dictating a message.
However, none of these advancements can eliminate the problem. With every app comes the option to disable it, or to never install it in the first place. If one is tempted to manually answer a text from behind the wheel, they need only tell their phone, “I’m a passenger.”
A survey commissioned by AT&T found that “95% of drivers disapprove of distracted driving, yet 71% engage in smartphone activities while driving.” If so many acknowledge that distracted driving is wrong, why do they still do it?
In today’s hyperconnected world, people bring their phones everywhere. Texting while driving is simply an extension of a lifestyle.
A 2017 survey conducted in the United Kingdom by online casino company Casumo shed light on technology dependency: “Finding that the average user unlocked their phone more than 10,000 times a year—or about 28 times a day—the researchers identified about 4,000 phone interactions a year as being ‘compulsive’ (i.e., the owner had no particular act in mind when engaging). Equally eye-opening was the finding that the highest decile of smartphone enthusiasts—or the top ten percent of users—opened their device 60-plus times every 24 hours. Still, only a third of respondents earnestly believed they were addicted to checking their device.”
Most conclude that technology dependence does not apply to them. No one wants to see himself as an addict. Yet even social media companies and others with plenty to gain by keeping people hooked on their products and services are starting to question the impact they are having on their users.
“There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called ‘continuous partial attention,’ severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity—even when the device is turned off. ‘Everyone is distracted,’ [Justin] Rosenstein says. ‘All of the time’” (The Guardian). Mr. Rosenstein is the Facebook engineer who created the “Like” button.
Even those that do not use their phones all day every day can most likely recall moments of feeling like a slave to it. Each electronic ding, twinge of vibration, or glowing notification light is a harbinger of vital stimulation from a friend, family member, crush, spouse, employer, co-worker or social media follower, and there is great temptation to check it immediately.
After considering technology’s emerging long-term impact, we must ask: what exactly do we miss out on when we are glued to our phones? Are we unwittingly avoiding something important when we make technology such an integral part of our lives? And why are we so eager to remain connected that we cannot even unplug when operating a 4,000-pound vehicle at high speeds?
This is not to say that technology is inherently evil. Text messaging and smartphones in general, serve a worthwhile purpose. It is when these are used in excess that they can do great harm. The tragedies we examined prove this.
Yet technology-dependent users are diverting their attention from more than just the road. There is also a failure of people thinking deeply about life and their place in it. This aversion to introspection is a much more subtle consequence than distracted driving—and much more pervasive.
The sad truth is that very few are any longer capable of being alone with their thoughts. In today’s affluent Western nations, most crave constant stimulation. To sit in silence is virtually unbearable. In fact, some would rather experience pain than be forced to spend time alone with their thoughts as one experiment proved.
Researchers from the University of Virginia found that a surprising number of participants chose to give themselves a mild electric shock rather than sit alone in a room with their thoughts. Among those who said they would pay not to experience the shock again, one-fourth of women and two-thirds of men zapped themselves rather than sitting in silence (Psychology Today).
It is easy to think that we can use technology as much as we wish without it affecting our overall ability to think, but the evidence is proving otherwise.
Processing information in tiny, scattered spurts as we switch from one app to the next is vastly different from consciously setting aside a substantive amount of time to actively control and direct our thoughts toward a subject.
An article on the website Thought Catalog explained the importance of human thought: “Your thoughts…are not only necessary but are also incredibly useful. They are nature’s way of telling you information that you need, that little light guiding you home. They provide you with emotions. They remind you that you are alive, and that you are a human being with likes and dislikes. They are not only capable of making your heart dance, reminding you of what you love, but they are also able to nudge you into straying away from what pains you. Your thoughts just wish to be heard, they want to be accepted.”
Instead of occasionally disconnecting from our devices to think deeply about the circumstances and challenges we face, “we choose distractions as our primary coping method” as the article explains.
By relying so heavily on technology, we cut ourselves off from the many benefits that come from exercising our minds. These include analyzing important life matters—examining personal behavior—and considering much deeper concepts such as the ultimate purpose of our lives.
If we can honestly admit that we have a problem, we can then start addressing it by pursuing what truly matters. There are tremendous benefits in shifting our focus away from trivial, inconsequential things and instead on questions such as: What really happens to a person when they die? Do people go to heaven if they were “good,” and to hell if they were “bad”? Is there a God who created the universe and all life forms, or did everything evolve? Why do I exist? And is there a greater purpose for human life than meets the eye?
These questions do have answers. To begin finding them, watch the two-part World to Come series on the subject starting with Why Were You Born? (Part 1).