On Nov. 20, The Gazette reported that traffic deaths in Iowa are much higher this year than in recent years. In fact, officials believe that by Dec. 31 we may top 400 deaths for the first time since 2008 (“Rising traffic deaths worry Iowa officials”). Currently, state deaths are 18 percent over the last five year average. In Linn County, 17 people have died in traffic deaths so far this year, compared to five deaths in 2015.
An earlier article quoted a State Highway Patrol official as pointing to at least two factors for the sharp increase. One is that lower fuel prices has led to more miles being driven this year — an estimated 7 percent increase over last year. The second is a dramatic increase in distracted driving, thanks to smartphones.
Patrick Hoye, chief of the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau, said his department is preparing a number of recommended law changes to combat these problems.
One likely change is strengthening Iowa’s seat belt law so that all passengers, not only those 18 years old and under, must be buckled in back seats. That change is long-past overdue.
Hoye also said he would not be surprised to see a “hands free” bill introduced, saying while there are other distractions for drivers, handheld devices represent “the worst of the worst.”
But a hands-free bill will not be enough.
Studies at the National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa show the only difference in hands-free use of the cellphone is in the dialing. Otherwise, the distraction is the same. The human brain is not a computer and thus cannot do multiple things well at the same time.
Safety experts define a difference between accidents — incidents in which the drivers and occupants could not have done anything to avoid the crash — and crashes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 90 percent of crashes are because of human error and could be avoided if all drivers were doing what they should be doing while driving. Many factors are involved. It means we all have to be proactive or defensive drivers.
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NHTSA believes that 85 percent of crashes are because of driver inattention three seconds before the crash. At 35 mph you would travel 154 feet in that time; at 70 mph you would travel the length of a football field and not be aware of it.
Clifford Ness of Stanford University says studies show multitaskers are worse at absorbing information, have weaker memories, are more distractible and slower to switch to new activities. In other words, high multi-taskers are lousy at everything that’s necessary for multi-tasking.
David Strayer of the University of Utah says “If you put a 20-year old driver behind the wheel with a cellphone, his reaction times are the same as a 70-year old driver. It is like instant aging.” His colleague Frank Drews says, “We found that when people talk on a cellphone they are impaired as they are when they drive intoxicated at the legal blood-alcohol limit.”
Whenever you take your eyes off the road for three seconds, you are endangering your life, the life of those in the vehicle with you and all those around you on the road. Driving is a full-time job. We need always expect the unexpected.
I hope the Iowa Legislature will pass a law banning use of cellphones while driving, with very high fines to further discourage their use.
It could save lots of lives and maybe keep Iowa’s car insurance premiums one of the lowest in the nation.
• Larry Neppl, of Marion, has taught 57 AARP SMART DRIVER classes to 723 graduates over the past 13 years and served six years as the Iowa state coordinator for the program.