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Studies try to quantify rates of distracted driving

Last week, we wrote about the Chicagoan who recorded a CTA bus driver behaving badly. The video shows the driver taking both hands off the wheel at several points in order to eat a McDonald's ice cream sundae.

Needless to say, this type of distracted driving is unacceptable, especially among commercial drivers. But more often than not, cellphones are what cause Chicago drivers to take their eyes of the road, their hands off the wheel and their minds off the task of driving. Texting or using a handheld cellphone while driving accounts for an estimated 28 percent of crash risk across the United States.

Texting seems to be especially dangerous. Certain studies have shown that compared to distraction-free drivers, those who text behind the wheel are 23 times more likely to crash. This is like driving with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.19 percent; more than twice the legal limit.

While it is unclear just how many Illinois drivers text behind the wheel, studies from other states may give us a ballpark figure. A recent study in Washington State, for instance, found that about 45 percent of drivers who were seen engaging in a distracting behavior were texting.

Researchers in the study observed and recorded drivers at selected intersections in six counties. In all, they observed the behaviors of 7,800 drivers. Of that group, better than 8 percent were seen engaged in distracted driving using a cellphone or other handheld electronic device.

Nearly half were seen texting. Researchers also observed that many drivers held the phone near or under the steering wheel while using it; possibly in an attempt to keep it out of sight of police. Unfortunately, drivers who do this take their eyes even further off the road in order to surreptitiously look at their phones.

Eight percent may not seem like a large number of distracted drivers. But consider the fact that each one of those distracted drivers represents a serious or fatal accident waiting to happen. In that light, it is easy to see how negligent and reckless this behavior actually is.

Source: University of Washington, "Nearly half of state’s distracted drivers are texting," Sept. 9, 2013

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