Fear gun violence, but fear texting drivers even more

Never mind the guns for now. Drivers tell me the roads are more dangerous than ever, as motorists multitask behind the wheel.

Apple consultants and other unqualified “experts” were impressing school administrators 10 years ago with revelations that kids are growing up as digital natives who can multitask the way older generations cannot. The consultants said additional electronic inputs can even help concentration.

The advice contains a dab of truth but is a risky misunderstanding of the psychology of attention that might be contributing to the increase in traffic fatalities and serious injuries. Tell drivers between the ages of 16 and 35 that they have the fortunate advantage of being able to handle more electronic inputs than the rest of us, and they might mistake that for permission to multitask while driving.

That’s exactly what’s happening. And older drivers are joining the crowd. Texting gets most of the coverage in the press, but cellphones give us instant access to many distractions inside a vehicle.

We can search for directions to where we’re going or look at reviews of restaurants, hotels and businesses. We can search for the best gas prices or watch funny videos and check our email. The best part is that we can do it all while keeping a pretty good eye on the road.

Not.

But something good is happening. More people are driving defensively against distracted drivers and becoming aware of the danger devices present to themselves and their passengers. They notice that they’re having to give more than their fair share of concentration to road safety.

Those dangerous drivers are us. And the more we drive and spend a little time on our electronic devices while at the wheel, the more we sneakily believe a little more is OK. And then a little more and a little more again. No matter your age, you will never reach the point where you have the capacity to distribute your attention across tasks and still have what you need for responding adequately in moments that require full attention.

Many things happen during two seconds in traffic. We dramatically increase the chance of a mishap when multitasking with anything while driving. Electronic devices grab even more of our attention, though, because they switch the subject in depth, moving our attention from the road environment into consuming thoughts, mental pictures and conversations. We are not “all there” when we need to be.

Road safety is a group project. My observation is that younger drivers are more distracted than anyone and that they believe they can give plenty of attention to road safety while enjoying the expanding capabilities of their irresistible phones.

Before long, all states will have to require phone usage to be included in evidence collection for traffic accidents in which carelessness is suspected or in which serious injury or fatalities occur. Distracted driving is too rampant to argue about anymore. Even motorcyclists are texting on the road. Every time you text or conduct other activity on your phone while driving, you are building a case against yourself in court, making it easy for a prosecutor to nail your hide to the wall and for the insurance company to raise your premium.

Motorized vehicles cause far more damage and deaths than guns, and are potential weapons in the hands of drivers who put cellphone use above the safety of everyone else on the road.

If you’re afraid of guns, the thought of texting while driving should make you wet your pants.

Max T. Russell of New Palestine writes for the international business intelligence and nonprofit communities.