Written by Stephen Levine Friday, 13 September 2013 00:00
At any given moment, one out of every 10 drivers on the streets of New Hyde Park is texting, talking or otherwise engaged with a handheld cellphone. This widespread disregard for the law as well as the safety of our children and neighbors is the startling finding of a study conducted by the New Hyde Park Illustrated News. Earlier this month, our reporters observed 300 cars on New Hyde Park Road at various times of day, and found 42 of the drivers blatantly brandishing their phones.
“It creates such a hazard,” Lakeville Estates Civic Association President Marianna Wohlgemuth said. “I see it all the time. I amazed at how selfish [drivers] are because nothing can be that important to endanger your life. It’s as bad as driving while drunk to me.”
And New Hyde Park is not alone. Identical studies conducted by our reporters in other Nassau County communities showed up to 13 percent of drivers with phone in hand (Great Neck), but no fewer than 9.7 percent in Jericho and Port Washington.
“Texting and driving has become one of the newest dangers,” said Christopher Mistron of Nassau County Traffic and Safety Department. “A simple ‘How are you?” can steer drivers off the road and increases the possibility of a crash greatly.”
Nationally, deaths from cellphone-related auto crashes have surpassed those involving alcohol—3,000 per year compared to 2,700—and lead to 330,000 injuries per year, according to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.
“Texting while driving is unique in that it uses both of your hands and your eyes, all of which are needed for driving,” said Robert Sinclair Jr., manager of media relations for AAA New York. “Some people think they can get away with doing it briefly but that’s not the case.”
A recent report from the Washington, D.C.-based AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety underscored that point, showing that even a hands-free phone impairs a driver’s ability to see danger and react. In the AAA study, cognitive distraction expert Dr. David Strayer and a team from the University of Utah measured brain waves and eye movements to assess shifts in drivers’ mental workloads when they attempted to multi-task. Cameras inside the cars tracked eye and head movement, while another mechanism recorded the motorists’ reaction time and an electroencephalographic skull cap charted brain activity.
“These findings reinforce previous research that hands-free is not risk-free,” said Peter Kissinger, who heads the foundation. “Increased mental workload and cognitive distractions can lead to a type of tunnel vision or inattention blindness where motorists don’t see potential hazards right in front of them.”
That is, the driver not only misses much of what’s ahead, but also neglects to look in the side and rearview mirrors.
“Everything has to be instant today and it’s costing people their lives or risking serious injury,” Wohlgemuth stated. “Back in the day, we had to rely on phones before going out. Now, it’s just an onslaught of information people need at their fingertips.”
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has advocated stricter laws since 2011, when he signed legislation making distracted driving a primary traffic offense, which allows police to pull a driver over purely for handheld cellphone use behind the wheel. More recently, Cuomo deployed troopers in Concealed Identity Traffic Enforcement (CITE) vehicles to patrol highways statewide and increased the penalty for texting from three to five points on a license.
“Drivers are being selfish, worrying about who’s texting them or who’s emailing them, when they should be concentrating on the road,” said Wohlgemuth. “Turn off your phone when you get in the car.”
Nonetheless, for many, the urge to respond to a buzzing phone is automatic, despite the life and death implications of staying focused when controlling several thousand pounds of steel traveling upwards of 88 feet per second at 60 miles per hour.
“Nothing is so important to take away from driving,” said Sinclair. “People who think they can text and drive...it’s insanity.”
And, according to experts, the insanity is spreading.
“It has crossed over to every age group,” said Mistron, “although it may be more prevalent in inexperienced drivers because they think they can get away with it.”
Cohen’s Children Medical Center in New Hyde Park analyzed a survey the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted of 15,000 geographically and demographically diverse high school students, which included questions about texting. The Cohen Center team examined the rate of texting while driving among teens, how this behavior correlates with other risky behaviors, and to what extent laws make a difference.
Their conclusions? Nearly half of all teenagers text and drive.
“Unfortunately kids are texting like crazy because its second nature to teenagers these days,” said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen. “They fail to appreciate the risks associated with texting while driving.”
According to Dr. Adesman, the rising wave in accidents by teenagers is a “perfect storm.” Teenagers are the newest and most inexperienced drivers, and adding a distraction like texting only increases the likelihood of a crash.
Unfortunately Dr. Adesman found that there is virtually no difference in texting rates between states that have laws prohibiting it and those that don’t, which seems to prove that the laws aren’t working.
“You can legislate up the wazoo, but people still have to comply,” said Sinclair. “Unfortunately, people still don’t get it.”
While legislation doesn’t seem to be a deterrent, many advocates, including Dr. Adesman, look to the cellphone manufacturers to help make the difference.
“There should be a technological solution to a technological problem,” he said, adding that there is an app that immobilizes the phone’s texting feature at speeds above 10 miles per hour.