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'Distracted Driving' by Kassidy O'Brien

I was recently in an auto collision caused by a distracted driver. She entered a roadway without checking for oncoming traffic and drove straight into my path. The moments before the collision were terrifying as I realized there was no way to avoid impact. As I work through the physical and mental recovery, I confront the knowledge that this event didn't have to happen. It raised my awareness of distracted drivers and I've been alarmed to see how common this careless, self-absorbed trend has become. As a society, we need to address it now. A multi-pronged approach operating at both systemic and individual levels is necessary to create a shift to focused, responsible driving.

As a baseline, each state must make handheld cell phone use illegal while driving. Despite crash statistics quantifying how dangerous phone use is, only 14 states have a current ban in place. Laws against texting are more prevalent and a great start, but also impede an officer's ability to discern whether a passing driver is engaging in illegal activity. A full ban on phone use while driving and supplementary laws against other forms of distraction are essential. Once these laws are in place, they must be enforced via citations, additional fines and jail time as appropriate. Multiple offenses should lead to suspension or revocation of driving privileges. These strategies have been proven effective in relation to speeding and substance abuse. Limiting people's freedom and finances is a powerful motivator for change.

Smart phone manufacturers can address this epidemic by incorporating apps preventing use while driving into their basic system. Such apps are already available and a fantastic start, but significant change will occur when it's an integrated feature. Until that becomes the norm, popular apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can integrate those features into their own programs. Private companies can be encouraged to make the shift towards stewardship via petitions, phone calls and pledges to support them.

Insurance companies should charge higher rates for drivers who cause collisions linked to distracted driving. That's more appropriate than expecting all policy holders to absorb the related expenses. Victims of distracted drivers should pursue appropriate financial and legal settlements with the insurance company or at-fault driver who made neglectful choices and abdicated their duty. These individuals and the companies who back them up should feel the impact of their choices. When enough victims stand up and enough bank accounts are hit, we will see the tide change. Many claims are not minimized when the damage is not sufficient to warrant an attorney. In those circumstances, insurance companies often get away with bullying victims. The gap measures in place are insufficient and a great many of us fall through the cracks. Legislation shoring up that gap would create thousands of smaller lawsuits. Alongside the settlements appropriate to cases with greater associated lose, a cumulative effect on the deep-pockets of insurance companies will be felt. Change is sure to follow.

Expunging a distracted driving charge should require an education program akin to those provided for drunk drivers. There is direct value in the education and a ripple effect as participants share their knowledge with those they care about. The inconvenience and cost of the class is further reason to avoid it and being obligated reminds us we risk our personal freedom once we begin abusing it. When one person in a peer group participates in a diversion class, they will directly and indirectly motivate others to keep their attention on the road.

Distracted driving simulations should be included in driver's education programs. Online models are already available and provide illuminating experiences. Specially equipped cars on closed track, such as those utilized for winter safety classes, would provide much needed reality check for those who think they can split attention and remain safe. The visceral experience will be jarring as drivers eat, pick a song or attempt to read and respond to texts while controlling for the expected and unexpected elements of the road. The experience of being out of control and scared will create a memorable dissuading effect.

Until all phones are equipped with a shutoff app, parents must take responsibility for their teens and install safe driving apps that cannot be overridden. This parameter will protect teens in much the same way as curfews and seat belts do. Like those interventions, this needs to become the norm. It's a great opportunity for families to talk about their values and responsibilities to one another.

Viral videos are a fantastic way to bring awareness to this issue. Whether the focus is on the risk or actual impact of distracted driving, it's effective. It is even more powerful when those who have lost loved ones or survived collisions speak up and tell their stories personally. We can tune out the latest shock video on Facebook but it is much harder to ignore the grieving parent or paralyzed teen when they speak at a high school embassy, church service, driver's ed class or university orientation. This is a humbling means of making the risk real to those who think it can't happen to them.

Friends and family should be part of this wave of accountability. We should insist those traveling with us behave responsibly. When I began asking my friends what they do with their cell phones while driving, I was shocked to hear their responses. More than a few felt it was sufficient not to text while driving. They might read while I motion or respond at stoplights. They swipe through and select music, program their maps and check for incoming e-mails while on the road. When I realized this was an issue among my peers, I took the opportunity to speak up. I talked about the impact one woman's choice has had on my physical and emotional well-being. I've made it real to them by sharing my experience and following up with a request to put the phone away, for all our sakes.

Sometimes speaking up is not enough and the best we can do is take responsibility for ourselves. It is imperative we not continue to ride with distracted drivers, letting them know why we are no longer their passengers. It's equally essential that we not be the distraction and instead be respectful passengers contributing to the driver's ability to focus.

I believe our society can turn around the alarming trend of distracted driving by addressing it at multiple levels. Stringently enforced laws coupled with appropriate cell phone restrictions will have profound effect. Those efforts can be bolstered with increased insurance rates along with criminal and civil penalties for neglectful drivers. Communities can take action be enacting diversion programs, distracted driving simulators and public appearances by victims of distracted drivers. In a final effort, we need to be having conversations with our loved ones about our responsibility to keep one another safe and holding ourselves responsible for the choices we make or condone. Combined, these elements will help us take our roads back so we can all get where we're going safely.

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