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Editorial: Don’t give in to driving distractions

If you’re reading this editorial on your Netbook while simultaneously cruising down Jake Alexander Boulevard and cruising the Post’s Web site, please log off or pull over. Immediately. We appreciate all of our readers, online as well as offline, but we’d like to help keep you around to enjoy tomorrow’s edition.
While the above scenario might once have sounded farfetched, it’s actually occurring all too frequently on the nation’s highways. Indeed, “driving while distracted” has reached such epidemic proportions that the Department of Transportation held a two-day summit on the problem this week in Washington. The conclusion, no surprise, is that more and more drivers are suffering death and serious injury from the consequences of not paying attention to the road. In 2008, according to federal officials, 5,870 fatalities ó or approximately 16 percent of all road deaths ó resulted from wrecks involving distraction. That’s up from 12 percent in the previous year.
Drivers have always been susceptible to distractions, whether it’s fiddling with the radio controls or trying to calm a screaming infant. What’s different these days, however, is the collision of two modern trends: An overabundance of mobile electronic gizmos and a tendency to multitask, especially when an era of downsizing and job insecurity has put many workers on call 24/7. In short, as a New York Times article recently described it, we’ve transformed our “cars into cubicles” from which real estate brokers, sales people, marketers, entrepreneurs and workers of many other stripes conduct business on the road. What was initially construed as a “teen texting” issue also involves a lot of perpetually distracted adults.
How bad is it?
IDC, a market research firm, estimated last year that there were 111 million mobile workers in the United States, with a substantial portion of them conducting business from their cars. In a 2007 survey, IDC found that 70 percent of owners of BlackBerrys and other smartphones used their device in a car at least once a week. Unfortunately, even smartphones can’t protect people from doing dumb things.
In response to the risks, federal officials are calling for more states to follow the lead of North Carolina and other states that have either restricted or banned the use of cell phones by drivers. The Obama administration has announced it will seek a ban on text messaging by interstate bus drivers and truck drivers, while also restricting their cell phone use.
For those who drive professionally or work in public transit, fear of losing their jobs may have more impact than fear of causing an accident. But that only covers one potential distraction and one segment of vehicle operators. For the bulk of multitasking motorists, you can’t legislate responsibility. Many drivers simply don’t think the consequences of inattention apply to them. Or maybe they’re just too distracted to rationally consider the risks.

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