Froma Harrop: Phone addiction and its deadly toll
It was a horrific scene. The pickup truck had smashed head-on into a bus taking elderly church members on an outing. Thirteen died. The 20-year-old truck driver said he had been texting when he swerved across the center line in Texas Hill Country. Moments before, a good citizen following the truck had called the police to report a truck driving erratically, as though there were no center line or even road.
Many Americans are so hooked on the flashing pleasures of smartphone use that they barely register the risks their distraction poses to themselves and others. Between 2010 and 2015, pedestrian deaths jumped an astounding 25 percent, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Cellphone use took much of the blame.
In Los Angeles, traffic deaths soared last year by 43 percent(!) over the year before. The 260 people killed included pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers. Although more driving — spurred by lower gas prices — plays a part, officials there see attention-diverting phones as a major culprit.
Sometimes it’s the driver whose mind is elsewhere, sometimes the pedestrian. But whoever is at fault, when a car collides with a human, the human usually loses. That’s why pedestrians account for nearly half the traffic deaths.
Driving through a college neighborhood at night, I often find myself veering around students lost in phone conversations as they dart from between parked cars while wearing black. Bicyclists are on cellphones.
I recently observed a woman charging past a don’t-walk sign and into oncoming traffic while chatting on a phone. She caught the situation in time and jumped back to the curb. What struck me was that she continued talking as though nothing had happened. The person on the other end probably had no idea how close that call came to being tragically ended.
The problem has several parts. One is that we don’t see walking as an activity requiring attention. (You know the insult, “He can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.”) Thus, we don’t see communicating via smartphone and walking as multitasking. But for pedestrians, the task is not just walking. It’s also negotiating traffic.
Another factor may simply be the accelerated pace of life. Concentrating on one thing seems a waste of our limited time, especially when that one thing involves waiting.
In this, your writer is no model of rectitude. Standing or even walking without earbuds or some riveting screen action often seems excruciating. In any line, I’m checking Twitter, messages and email, sometimes Facebook. And so are half the other people waiting.
This is apparently a real addiction. Phoning, Googling, emailing, texting — “each of these things tweaks the novelty-seeking, reward-seeking centers of the brain,” writes neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, “causing a burst of endogenous opioids (no wonder it feels so good!), all to the detriment of our staying on task.”
Texting is the worst. A study by the Washington (state) Traffic Safety Commission found that texting raised a driver’s risk of causing an accident by 23 times. Last year, 20 percent of the deadly accidents in the state were tied to distracted driving.
Insurance companies are very concerned. The average car insurance premium spiked by 16 percent last year, to an average of $926 nationwide. Much of it, the industry says, reflects the havoc unleashed by drivers engrossed in their gadgets.
The tragedy in Texas was remarkable for the high death count and the mind-blowing recklessness of the texting driver. But the national toll from distracted behavior continues to rise daily at a shocking rate. Laws governing what one may do under the influence of smartphones may help. Obviously, though, the problem goes deeper than that.