Monday, January 16th, 2017

Distracted Driving – The need to stay connected and its impact on the road

Vehicles have come a long way over the past few decades. New safety features, more air bags and new technology, are all designed to keep us safe. However when it comes to driving, the one variable you still can’t control is the driver.

Each day, nearly 143 million Americans take to the roads, likely giving little thought to it. However the truth is that today more than ever, drivers are becoming distracted behind the wheel and it’s leading to more accidents each year.

Estimates suggest that distraction contributes to 16% of all fatal crashes, leading to around 5,000 deaths every year.

Over the past decade, cell phone use has sky rocketed as the need to “stay connected” has infiltrated every aspect of our lives.

While many have pointed to “hands-free” devices as the answer, some researchers are now saying that these can actually present a false sense of safety.

Many distracted drivers, even those using these devices, can experience what is called “inattention blindness”, similar to tunnel vision. Drivers are looking ahead, but fail to process everything such as identifying hazards, or responding to unexpected situations.

IMG_4698Tom Schmandt is the Director of PE, Athletics and Community Service for Pal-Mac School District. He’s in charge of coordinating Pal-Mac’s Driver’s Education classes and has been a part of the program locally for over 17 years. “There’s no time to think anymore”. Schmandt said drivers today are being pulled in so many different directions, that when it comes time to get behind the wheel, many people neglect to give driving their full attention.
“I sit in my car for a few minutes before going anywhere to make sure I won’t be distracted while driving.”

Schamndt said that driving has changed quite a bit since he was a child. “Back in those days, people didn’t even wear seat belts”. Schamndt said that one day things just kind of “clicked” for him. “Why wouldn’t I take two seconds to put on a seatbelt if it meant saving a life.” Schmandt says he now takes that same consideration anytime he calls someone. “My first question is always – “Are you driving?” Nothing is so important it can’t wait a few minutes.”

While Teens are arguably more prone to distracted driving, in school Drivers Education is being cut back Nationwide.

Pal-Mac, along with other local Schools like Marion, have outsourced their Driver’s Education program to WFL BOCES, only offering it during the Summer. Other Schools in the County have either limited the availability of the program, or now charge separate fees for taking the class.

Even with the BOCES program, Schmandt estimates it costs the district around $25,000 each year. “For us it’s about providing a well rounded education”. While he no longer teaches the course, Schmandt is a Certified Instructor and says there’s a common misconception, even among other faculty. “Most people think you can just teach the class and don’t know about the process involved with the certification”, one that Schmandt says takes 12 credits and is only offered at a few institutions.

While Schmandt believes in education, he’s also aware of the fact that you can “…lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”. He pointed to new statistics that show distracted and drowsy driving closely approaching the same levels as drunk driving when it comes to accidents in the US.

Teen drivers account for an alarming number of these accidents and beyond the tragedy of the accident itself, the impact on their parents insurance can be an overlooked consequence.

Local Insurance Agent and Times Columnist Chuck Wells says it is always best to have a separate insurance policy for a young driver. “Anyone can be sued for anything today. If a vehicle is titled, registered, and insured in a teenager’s name only, it is very difficult for someone to successfully sue the parents, even if the teen is a minor.”

Regardless of the policy, Wells urges parents to start much more simply bysetting ground rules right from the start. “Parents should insist on eliminating driver distractions, such as cell phones from the mix with young drivers and establish a firm rule about no more than one passenger riding in the vehicle.”

While cellphones and texting get much of the media attention these days, having too many passengers, playing loud music, using a GPS system and several other routine activities are contributing to the growing numbers of accidents each year.

The National Highway Safety Administration estimates 10% of injury crashes in 2011 were reported as distraction-affected crashes. Their website,, is full of resources and information that parents and educators can use to help reinforce the dangers of distracted driving with young drivers.

The National Safety Council along with several other organizations are observing National Teen Driver Safety Week Oct. 20-26. It’s a time when Parents are encouraged to sit down with teens and discuss safe and responsible driving habits, as well as the potential consequences of distracted driving.

In addition, Parents are also encouraged to reflect on their own behavior as teens are likely to mimic their actions behind the wheel.