1st Place – Nicholas Katz

Nicholas Katz

As the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. This is how we feel about driving. The first time each of us got behind the wheel of a motor vehicle we were awed by the responsibility, scared of the risks, and careful to ensure to do everything correctly. Over the years of driving we lose each of those feelings, the responsibility, the fear, the care. People drive distracted every day, thinking that the unthinkable will never happen to them. A split second, however, can prove them fatally wrong. For the last five years, I’ve worked as a police officer and as a member of the New Haven Police Department Crash Reconstruction Team. I’ve seen firsthand the dire consequences that can follow from distracted driving. I’ve seen the victims over and over again … the unsuspecting driver, the pedestrian standing on the sidewalk, the bicyclist, even an infant in a stroller being pushed across the street. I’ve seen the bloody scenes and I’ve gone to the autopsies.

I’ve worked on Distracted Driving Checkpoints, where we specifically target drivers on their cell phones and issue infractions. These Distracted Driving checkpoints and targeted enforcement drives are a failure. They cannot stem the tide. The police cannot be on all roads at all times and drivers know that they’re unlikely to be caught by us. The task of decreasing distracted drivers fall on all parts of society. Drivers have the initial responsibility, but the government and law enforcement must take steps to ensure that drivers embrace that responsibility. The first step is recognition and analysis of the problem. Multiple government studies have shown the negative effects of distracted driving. As the use of technology increases along with the accident rates, state governments have taken action to fight the epidemic. Many states have banned the hand-held use of cell phones for drivers. Several states have passed laws specifically banning texting. While this law is well-intended, police officers find it difficult to enforce, as it is almost impossible to prove that someone was texting while driving.

Once a distracted driving law is passed, it falls on law enforcement agencies to ensure that drivers are following them. In many departments, staffing issues causes motor vehicle enforcement to be neglected. Law enforcement is necessary but is only part of the solution. Increased awareness of the issue by the general population is required. Additional avenues must be explored to assist the police. Some states have experimented with traffic signs on highways notifying drivers of the state distracted driving laws and the consequences of violating them. A more targeted and potentially effective approach are cell phone apps that automatically prevent drivers from using the phone until stopped. This might prove to be the most effective method of preventing distracted driving, but is dependent on the dedication of the driver to use the app.

The government could take additional action to encourage smartphone manufacturers to make this app automatically installed on all phones and force users to acknowledge the risks of utilizing their phone while drivers. While drivers who don’t care about the risks will simply opt out of using the app, it might serve to increase awareness and reduce the incidence of distracted driving. A different technological approach might involve utilizing vehicles to monitor and control drivers. Certain insurance companies already use a telematics device to monitor and record driver information to adjust insurance policies. The same technology and information could be used to evaluate drivers for the effects of distracted driving – inability to maintain lanes, sudden braking, or other indicators of the driver not paying attention. These measures could be effective, but are increasingly intrusive on driver privacy. In the face of all the distractions, we must face the possibility is that there is little that society can do to truly impact distracted driving without negatively impacting civil liberties. Like many other of society’s vices, we must balance the cost it has on the population versus the enjoyment we receive from it and the cost it would take to regulate the vice.

The dedication of drivers is the most integral part to any reduction in distracted driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that at any moment during the daylight hours, about 660,000 drivers are handling cell phones or other electronic devices while driving in the U.S. Distracted driving is a real issue that will not go away on its own. We must all accept responsibility for our actions, and do our part to help save lives. Education and awareness may be the biggest help in reducing distracted driving. Increased education for drivers on the risks they face including serious injury, death, criminal charges, and civil liability, might make drivers less willing to tolerate those risks. My experiences in seeing the trauma that results has made me sure to always pay attention to the road, experiences that will remain with me for the rest of my life. I’ll never forget the personal impact my experiences have had on me, and I hope our society can continue to take steps to reduce the lives lost from distracted driving.

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