In the midst of Distractive Driving Awareness Month, almost half of commuters said they texted while behind the wheel

Jeremy Thomas

Despite knowing the risks of distracted driving, a growing number of legal-aged drivers are texting while behind the wheel of a moving vechicle.

A recent AT&T Inc. poll revealed that nearly half of commuters texted while they drove a vehicle, 43 percent of whom called it a “habit.” The poll was released at the start of April, which is Distractive Driving Awareness Month.

According to the Texas Department of Transportation, out of the more than 81,000 Texas crashes in 2011 that involved distraction, driver inattention or cell-phone use, 361 were fatal.

Chandra Bhat, director of the University’s Center for Transportation Research and professor of engineering, said it is important to have an awareness month to present a discourse about distractive driving and inform the public of its dangers.

I think the idea is a very good one, but I would like to see more informational campaigns ­ almost infomercials, if you will ­ articulating the risks of distracted driving,” Bhat said. “However, with campaigns I am not sure that simply telling people to avoid doing this or that is going to be too effective. It has to be, I guess, something associated at a deeper level.

The AT&T poll also revealed 98 percent of commuters surveyed said they knew the dangers of sending a text or e-mail. Bhat said it is hard to determine why people continue to be distracted at the wheel when they know the risks.

Based on cognitive behavioral studies undertaken by psychologists, people feel the need to be connected at all times, and so try to be responsive and timely to anything that has happened,” Bhat said. “Today the cost of responding even as late as five minutes can be steep for people in some careers, or at least they may perceive this to be the case, almost a make or break [situation].

In 2009, Austin City Council approved an ordinance that banned texting while driving. Police officers have issued 643 texting while driving citations since February 2010, according to the Austin Police Department. Randy Pogue, APD Highway Enforcement Command lieutenant, said distractive driving can extend beyond just texting and driving.

“It could be something as normal as talking to passengers,” Pogue said. “Sometimes you take your eye off the road and look at your passenger to address them … Adjusting radios while driving and dealing with people in your car are probably the oldest ones, in my opinion, of distractive driving.”

Marketing senior Kimberly Fransham said she developed a rule in which she cannot be on her phone while she is driving, but still can be distracted at the wheel.

“If I have the radio on, you can’t hear road noises as well so that would be one way,” Fransham said. “Often times when my friends are in the car, I find it harder to focus on the road because I have to think more about not being distracted.”

Current Texas State Law bans the use of hand-held phones and texting in school zones for all drivers and bans texting for bus drivers and novice drivers. A bill in the Texas Legislature proposes banning all cell phone usage while driving unless in or witnessing an emergency situation. In 2011, Gov. Rick Perry vetoed a similar bill because he viewed it as a “government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.”

With or without a state law banning all drivers from using a mobile device behind the wheel, Bhat said there are creative methods drivers can employ and not be distracted.

Simply looking at the license plate of the vehicle in front of you or even absorbing the color of the vehicle in front of you can help,” Bhat said. “Also, consider consciously taking a slightly different route during your commute. It may be as simple as taking a parallel link to what you used yesterday. This ensures that you are keeping track of where you are on the network, and because you are consciously paying attention to taking a slightly different route from yesterday, it will take away some from being distracted and even being preoccupied.