Photo by Thomas R Machnitzki (

February 28, 2017

After decades of declining traffic deaths, more Americans are dying on roads and highways than in years, with 40,200 deaths from accidents in 2016 alone. According to a February New York Times article, the increase in motor vehicle related deaths over the past two years “is the largest in more than a half a century.”

“Distracted driving is the new drunk driving,”  suggests behavioral and community health Professor Ken Beck. The agencies who track road safety statistics are increasingly “broadcasting the idea that distracted driving is a leading cause of crashes,” he says. 

Dr. Beck teaches “Drugged, Drowsy and Distracted Driving: Traffic Safety Issues for the New Millennium,” an undergraduate community health course that examines the history, policies, and current research on impaired driving in our society.

The issue of distracted driving gained attention from law enforcement and law makers several years ago when a law was passed in Maryland and DC making the use of hand-held cell phones while driving a fineable offense. However, laws like this that were put into place to address talking or texting while behind the wheel quickly became outdated since today’s smart phones create driving distractions that extend way beyond simple text messages. Dr. Beck says that “there’s no real, discernable improvement with hands-free [phone use while driving],” and even the current texting laws are not being enforced.

Dr. Beck says that a combination of increased enforcement, education at a young age, and an intensive, prolonged media campaign of three to five years is needed to address the issue of distracted driving. He points to the major success of the drunk driving campaign of the 1980s, when drunk driving incidents dropped dramatically and there was a fundamental shift in cultural attitudes. This was accomplished, he says, with a combination of “enforcement, and aggressive advertising about enforcement.”

In a 2015 paper on texting and driving, Dr. Beck found that “texting and driving was the largest and most topical distracted driving issue and was also identified as very difficult to stop due to perceived barriers and the idea that intervening is rude.” The same cultural shift that happened in the 1980s to make it socially unacceptable to drink and drive has not yet occurred with distracted driving.

Dr. Beck thinks communications about distracted driving should be aimed at pre-teens and parents. He suggested that parents should be exposed to an app that monitors their own problematic behavior and educates them about the dangers of distracted driving. “In student driving, patterns tend to follow parents,” he says. If a parent is an aggressive driver, or a distracted one, a student is more likely to emulate that same behavior.

Dr. Beck hosted AT&T’s Dawn Couch in his distracted driving class in February so that students could experience a virtual reality crash caused by a driver focused on their cell phone. Couch, who is AT&T’s senior public relations manager, also shared videos from the “It Can Wait” campaign, which reminds people that “you are never alone on the road, even when you are alone in your car” and encourages people to pledge to never drive distracted again. 

Couch remembers campaigns against drunk driving in the 1980s.  “Mothers Against Drunk Driving would bring these huge smashed up cars, and would set them up in front of schools as a reminder of what can happen when you’re drinking and driving. We’re hoping that showing these videos will leave the same impression,” she says.

“It was scary,” Dr. Beck’s student Niki Papageorgopoulos says. “We don’t like seeing people dying and knowing it’s you that could be the cause of it.” Papageorgopoulos was not fully aware of the scope of the distracted driving problem before the AT&T presentation. “Rather than just statistics, they’re showing a scenario, and that was effective for me.” She thinks that AT&T is in a position to get this message out, and also to influence public policy.

Dr. Beck also points to current technology that limits or prevents some cell phone activities while driving. A Washington Post article recently quoted him in his classroom: “It’s just a question of Congress passing a law that mandates that that would occur. The technology is there—the question is whether the advocates for cell phones would lobby against that. You as voters ought to be aware of that.”

Further down the road, self-driving cars may solve the whole problem, he says, though he points out that it will be many years before most people own such cars. “Sit in the back seat, check your email,” he said with a laugh. “It wouldn’t matter.

Related Links

Washington Post: UMD students get glimpse of virtual reality — and then reality — on distracted driving

Related People
Kenneth H. Beck
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