By Autumn Cafiero Giusti
They’re known as the four Ds of impairment: drinking, drugs, distraction and drowsiness. Traffic safety experts have concluded that these are the four impairments most likely to hinder a person’s ability to drive a car and get to their destination safely.
For at least three decades now, law enforcement agencies and organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and have warned of the hazards of drunk driving. But in recent years, some attention has shifted to the dangers of distracted driving, and texting in particular, as mobile devices have become more prevalent in daily life.
So which impairment is the most dangerous? It depends on whom you ask.
In a recent blog post, Michigan Auto Law presented statistics showing that drunk drivers are the most dangerous by far, and are up to 380 times more likely to crash. Texting drivers were 23 times more likely, drowsy drivers were five times more likely and drivers high on marijuana were twice as likely.
But a few years ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that driving a vehicle while texting is six times more dangerous than driving while intoxicated.
It can be difficult to collect enough data to measure which impairments result in the most accidents, says Kara Macek, spokeswoman for the Governors Highway Safety Administration. For example, it can be a lot harder to measure how much of a certain drug was in a person’s bloodstream than it is to measure blood-alcohol levels. But what’s certain, she says, is that all impairments pose significant risks that drivers need to be made aware of.
“They all contribute to hundreds, if not thousands of preventable deaths on the roadway every year,” Macek says.
While there’s been some debate as to whether texting while driving is more dangerous than alcohol use behind the wheel, there’s no question that distraction has become a hot-button issue that’s received a great deal of attention in recent years.
“It’s a whole new epidemic,” Young says. “If someone told you today that when you went to lunch you would be 23 times more likely to have an accident, you’d skip lunch.”
Attorney Todd Berg with Michigan Auto Law in Farmington Hills, Mich., estimates that at any given time, about half of the people on the road are texting or using a mobile device in some way. “Think about the odds of a crash occurring,” he says. “It’s outrageous.”
The state of Michigan in 2010 passed a ban on texting while driving, and Berg says the number of tickets issued for the offense has gone up since then.
“We’ve seen a noticeable uptick in the number of cases that involve distracted driving in some form or fashion, whether it’s talking on the phone, texting or just not keeping your eye on the roadway,” Berg says.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 220 million people in the U.S. subscribe to wireless devices, and it is estimated that as many as 80% of those subscribers use their phones while driving. In 2010, approximately 3,092 people in the U.S. died in crashes that involved a distracted driver, and 416,000 people were injured.
Whereas there’s a social stigma attached to drunk driving and drug use behind the wheel, cell phone use is still much more socially acceptable, says Dan Young, U.S. brand president for the auto body expert network CARSTAR and chairman of the National Auto Body Council’s Distracted Driving Initiative. “It is a massive contributor to most accidents,” he says.
Distracted driving isn’t just a problem among young adults.
And distraction isn’t just a problem among the young. “It’s people in their teens, 20s, 30s 40s, 50s and 60s,” Young says. “You pull up to almost any stop light on your way home from work at 6 p.m., and it’s not just young drivers affected by distracted driving; it’s almost everybody.”
Distracted driving tends to cause more rear-end crashes because drivers aren’t paying attention to what’s in front of them and don’t realize that a car has stopped because they’re looking down at their phones. There’s also the potential for much more serious accidents, such as when a person doesn't realize the traffic light has changed and runs a red light. “They’re into the intersection before they realize they shouldn’t be,” Young says.
State lawmakers in recent years have passed legislation targeting distraction. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 46 states and Washington, D.C. prohibit text messaging for drivers. Of the remaining four states:
• Missouri prohibits texting by drivers ages 21 or younger.
• Texas prohibits school bus drivers, drivers in school zones and immediate license holders for the first 12 months.
• Arizona and Montana have put no limitations on texting while driving.
Among the other regulations:
• Washington D.C. and 14 states prohibit drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving.
• No state bans all cell phone use for drivers, but 37 states and D.C. ban all cell phone use by novice or teen drivers, while 20 states and D.C. prohibit cell phone use for school bus drivers.
Traffic safety experts point out that distraction is not limited to texting. Making phone calls, changing the radio station, applying makeup, programming a navigation system and dealing with children in the rear seat are all forms of distraction.
“With so many distracted drivers on the road, it’s important to focus on safety from your driveway to the highway and the parking lots in between,” says Rob Mullner, who goes by the title of Chief Auto Enthusiast for Auto Parts Warehouse.
While distracted driving has been receiving much of the attention lately, experts point out that drunk driving still contributes to one-third of traffic fatalities. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, approximately 10,076 people were killed in alcohol-related traffic crashes in 2013, accounting for 31% of the total motor vehicle traffic fatalities in the U.S.
“Alcohol is still a huge, huge problem,” Macek says. “Overall, fatalities have gone down. But the proportion of fatalities related to alcohol impairment has not.” Macek says there are some promising solutions in play, such as ignition interlock devices, which feature a breathalyzer mechanism installed in a vehicle to deter drinking and driving. Before the vehicle can be started, the driver must breathe into the device. If the device detects alcohol levels that are greater than a certain level, it prevents the vehicle from being started. Right now, all 50 states have some sort of ignition interlock law, with many states adopting the use of these devices for convicted drunk drivers.
With more states legalizing or relaxing the laws against marijuana use, there has been increased interest in drug-impaired driving.
Approximately 18% of all fatally injured drivers tested positive for some sort of drug in 2009, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The nationally recognized level of impairment for drunk driving is a blood-alcohol level of .08. But there is no similar standard for drugged driving, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Officer Tom Koch, team leader on the day shift of the Harper College Police Department and a 30-plus year veteran of the Illinois State Police, believes that impairments from both drugs and alcohol tend to be the most severe and the most likely to be involved in crashes.
The fact that several states, including Illinois, have completely or partially legalized marijuana makes it more difficult to enforce drug use while driving, Koch says. Marijuana has either been made completely legal, decriminalized and/or legal for medicinal use in 28 states and the District of Columbia.
Koch says marijuana cuts down on a driver’s distance judgment and results in a lot of accidents involving side swiping and rear ending.
“It can be like people falling asleep at the wheel because they’re at that stage of not judging things correctly,” Koch says.
Barry P. Goldberg, a personal injury attorney in Woodland Hills, Calif., says he sees little difference between drug and alcohol impairment behind the wheel. Cars moving at higher speeds, going the wrong way or turning into oncoming traffic are often the cause of these accidents. “It’s things that are so dangerous that they’re not within the realm of normal driving experiences,” he says. “Once you’re impaired, your judgment is gone.”
Goldberg recently took on a death case involving a driver who had a high dose of THC in his bloodstream and was going 100 mph through an intersection. “It’s not surprising that an innocent victim was killed,” he says.
Whereas police can usually determine through toxicology tests whether alcohol was involved in a crash, it’s a lot more difficult to determine whether drowsiness played a role.
“You can’t measure whether someone was falling asleep before they got into a crash that killed them,” Macek says.
Goldberg says he sees fewer cases involving drowsy drivers, but when he does, they usually involve single-car accidents in which a drowsy driver steered off the road and hit a tree or some other object. These drivers are more common on sparsely populated roads and freeways and highways where there’s not a lot of stopping and maneuvering.
“Drowsy drivers tend to be on highways where it’s boring driving, and you have repetitive lines coming at you, as opposed to stop-and-go traffic with traffic lights,” Goldberg says.
While traffic experts continue to rely on crash reports and do the best they can to know which impairments are of the most concern, Macek says that efforts are ongoing to make sure that people are being engaged drivers, and that driving impairments overall continue to deserve attention until the day when driverless cars can become a reality.
“Ultimately the pinnacle of all this would be getting rid of the driver altogether, but I think we’re a ways off from that.”