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Inconsistency of U.S. Laws Impedes Efforts to Curb Distracted Driving

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Drop it and Drive. It’s an organization with a message that saves lives. And nobody delivers that message with more personal commitment than its executive director and founder, Karen Bowman.

As a two-time crash survivor herself, Karen founded Drop It And Drive (DIAD) in 2010 with a determination to end distracted driving through education and awareness. The DIAD education campaign became a particularly personal cause after Karen’s then 8-year-old daughter was involved in a crash, caused by a distracted driver, in January 2011.

To date, Drop It And Drive has presented to more than 55,000 youth and workers across Canada and the U.S. In addition to presentations to students, corporations and industry organizations, Karen actively engages in public and private sector initiatives to change dangerous, self-destructive behaviors.

We had a chance to chat with Karen and get her perspective on key issues that still need considerable attention in order for motorists to change the mindset that passively tolerates distracted driving. Here are some of her insights:

GasBuddy: Do you think most companies where employee driving is part of their work have become better educated on their legal responsibility to ensure that employees are driving safely and distraction-free? 

Karen Bowman: Probably more so for companies who have fleet vehicles and professional drivers. Probably less so for other types of employees, such as sales, who may often visit clients but may not be viewed as driving being part of their job description. With the inconsistency of distracted driving laws and penalties across the U.S., it may be challenging for companies to recognize the extent of the risk associated with distracted driving.

Do you think that there’s still a significant learning curve that must be overcome? 

Yes, perhaps to a greater extent in terms of reinforcing practices every day. Many have policies but there needs to be more ‘action’ behind the policy. Many companies already possess a high level of safety awareness due to the nature of their industry, i.e. mining, oil and gas, construction, forestry, agriculture and transport.

However, it’s been our experience that while their knowledge of safety within their industry is highly sophisticated, the challenge lies in what they don’t know they don’t know. There is a general acceptance that distracted driving is dangerous; however, its risks factors are not truly understood without the science and demonstrations to explain how and why it is risky.

Distractions such as fatigue, complacency, repetitiveness and boredom are not as commonly discussed as hand-held electronic devices, but they play a significant role in cognitive distraction. Companies must first understand the nature of distraction and then be able to identify how it is associated with workplace practices in order to identify and mitigate those risk factors.

What’s the one thing you’d like to say to CEOs and CFOs who might argue that it’s a personal responsibility, not a workplace obligation? 

It’s a shared responsibility and employers are ultimately impacted by crash-related injuries in the form of workplace absences and insurance costs. So, regardless of responsibility, the costs to employers are substantial, and employers can reduce costs resulting from distracted driving. A healthy workforce is in everyone’s interest, and this makes it a shared responsibility.

In your opinion is the automotive industry a critical part of the problem? 

At this point, in the absence of regulation, the automotive industry is responding to consumer demand, and consumers are not well-educated about distractions. The Traffic Injury Research Foundation released a Road Safety Monitor report which showed 30% of Canadians thought hands-free was safe because it was not prohibited in legislation.

Many people believe voice-activated is safer, but, research shows that, due to the level of cognitive distraction, it’s not. So the technology in vehicles is not always beneficial and, in addition to the automotive industry, government has a role to play with safety testing.

Consumers need to be more educated to understand the risks of these technologies as well as their benefits. On November 23, 2016, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released recommendations related to the driver distraction caused by mobile and other electronic devices in vehicles.

There is undoubtedly strong consumer demand for in-vehicle connectivity and infotainment systems; however, as already mentioned, consumer knowledge of the risks associated with these distractions is low. The automotive industry is in a position to not only address in-vehicle distractions, but they also have the opportunity to help educate their consumers.

Is the solution to reduce distracted driving going to come from greater public awareness?  Harsher penalties?  Pressure on automakers? All of the above? 

A comprehensive approach is needed. Distracted driving is a complex issue requiring a complex approach; in order to effect behavioral change, it will take the combined efforts of legislators, educators, academics/research, law enforcement, industry and society.

GasBuddy is a smartphone app connecting drivers with their Perfect Pit Stop. GasBuddy is the leader in crowdsourced information to help drivers find the best gas prices, closest stations, friendliest service, cleanest restrooms, tastiest coffee and much more. GasBuddy is the leading source for the most accurate, real-time fuel prices at more than 140,000 gas stations in the U.S., Canada and Australia.