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San Diegans And Distracted Driving

April 10, 2013 1 p.m.


Dr. Linda Hill, clinical professor in the Department of Family and Preventative Medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine

Officer Mary Bailey, California Highway Patril

Related Story: San Diegans And Distracted Driving


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's been illegal to use a hand-held cellphone or text while driving in California for the last several years. But the use of cellphones is still the No. 1 reason behind distracted driving crashes in our state. A new survey on driver cellphone use in San Diego examples how people are using the devices in their cars and research is also looking at other causes of distracted driving crashes. I'd like to introduce my guests, doctor Linda Hill, clinical professor in the department of family and preventative medicine at UCSD's school of medicine and she led the survey team. Welcome to the program.

HILL: Thanks so much.

CAVANAUGH: And officer Mary Bailey is here, with the California highway patrol. Welcome.

BAILEY: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Dr. Hill, what were you hoping to find out about San Diego drivers in this survey?

HILL: We had done this study about a year ago, looking at college and university student, and we just found some shocking rates of distracted driving. So we wanted to know what's going on in the 30-65-year-old group.

CAVANAUGH: How was the survey conducted? Who took part?

HILL: It was an online voluntary unanimous survey. We advertised as widely as we could to try to get a representative sample.

CAVANAUGH: And what did you ask them?

HILL: We asked them things about their distracted driving behaviors and driving habits. We wanted to know how often they drove and what did they do when they were driving. And we wanted to know some of their attitudes about distracted driving.

CAVANAUGH: And what are some of the habits that were revealed in this survey?

HILL: Seven 40 participants, the majority of them female and married, it's amazing, there was about 82% of the participants who said they were engaged in distracted driving, and that includes texting, hands-free, hand-held, texting, the whole thing.

CAVANAUGH: So people are still making phone calls with hand-held cellphones?

HILL: Yes, 50% of participants are still making calls with them. And what was amazing is some people who said they have received citations for this behavior, 40% of them had changed their behavior afterward.

CAVANAUGH: Only 40%. And what about texting? Again with a hand-held device.

HILL: Well, that's of course banned in the State of California.


HILL: And yet we found that about 3/4 of people are doing it at some point, including people with kids in the car.

CAVANAUGH: With kids in the car. Officer Bailey, California requires hands-free devices when you're using a cellphone or texting while driving. Have those laws made a change in distracted driving incidents?

BAILEY: What it's done is actually brought more education and awareness to our drivers. By having that law, it's making them think, you know what? Is this an actual distraction while driving and maybe I should not be doing it.

CAVANAUGH: It's the psychologist that before people thought nothing of it?

BAILEY: Correct.

CAVANAUGH: This is the way you can drive, and this is no problem for you at all?

BAILEY: Exactly because it wasn't against the law, therefore it meant that it was okay to do it.

CAVANAUGH: Nationwide, Dr. Hill, the number of distracted driving crashed went up in 2011. And remind us about what those numbers are.

HILL: Well, it's hard to get really good estimates because some of this behavior is hidden. And trying to figure out when a crash involves a distracted driver is harder than it sounds. But we think that somewhere between 3-5 deaths a year, and 400 crashes nationwide were caused where one of the drivers is distracted.

CAVANAUGH: And to be clear, when it comes to distracted driving, it doesn't have to be a cellphone, right?

BAILEY: It doesn't have to be a cellphone. It can be anything from you using your GPS to eating, drinking, adjusting the radio, applying your makeup, reading a roadmap. Even the children in the backseat of your vehicle.

CAVANAUGH: Can it be as simple as listening to the radio?

>> Absolutely, in you're singing along and it's a really good song, you get a little distracted.

CAVANAUGH: How does distracted driving compare with alcohol in a risk of crashes?

BAILEY: As an officer, and I know just the motoring public sees it the same way. You find somebody in front of you that's weaving back and forth, traveling at a slower rate of speed than the rest of traffic, and automatically I know, as a driver you think either that person is under the influence of alcohol or drugs or they're texting or talking on their cellphone.

CAVANAUGH: I see. And do you actually have a comparison between how inebriated a person would be as compared to distracted driving? Does it make people drive as if they are drunk enough to be taken off the road?

BAILEY: They look exactly the same. So I'm going to stop the person no matter what, whether they're under the influence or presumed to be or whether or not they're texting and talking on their cellphone. So it's -- if you're driving is showing that you're not driving a straight line, I'm going to stop you.

CAVANAUGH: It comes out to be a .08, doesn't it? Distracted driving?

HILL: Yes. And we wouldn't be so irresponsible as to most of us to drive under the influence of alcohol. And yet people are out there driving distracted with their phones. And unfortunately, hands-free or hands-held, it looks like the crash rate is about the same.

CAVANAUGH: Adults who text or talk on a hand-held cellphone while driving with small children. Tell us about that.

HILL: Of the 261 respondents who had children less than 11 in the car, sixty-five% talk on a cellphone at some point. And 36 text at some point. And it was about the same for the 12-17 year-olds. They're not only putting themselves at risk, and the public around them, but they're putting the kids at risk. The thing I really worry about is that they're modelling a bad behavior.

CAVANAUGH: Is the CHP pulling over more cars with kids in the car for distracted driving?

BAILEY: We don't necessarily collect those statistics. But we look to remind people that are driving distracted that you do have people to with are about in your car and the vehicles around you.

CAVANAUGH: I don't know about you two, but I think many people have done this, if you're getting a call, let's say from an employer, that was another risk factor in your study, wasn't it? You know that you've left work and so-and-so says they're going to call, and then the cellphone rings. And you really feel as if you have to take that call.

HILL: We wanted to ask about that. That might be an issue. And 31% of people said they felt pressured to take calls. And we compared the way they answered the questions on distracted driving in other parts of the survey, they were the people who were more likely to distracted drive. So that concerns us. We think that's a message for both employers and employees to look at.

CAVANAUGH: And back to your point, Dr. Hill about the hand-held as opposed to hands-free. Many experts are saying now that drivers are equally distracted whether they are uses a hand-held or hands-free device. Would you agree based on what you see coming out of your survey?

HILL: Our survey looked at frequency rates of this behavior, and unfortunately they were both high. And it flies in the face of the data that hands-free is better. Even though it's legal, hands-free is still a dangerous thing. It seems that our mind goes somewhere when we're on the phone that really takes our brain's attention away from the task at hand. Why would you know so much intimate things about people in a restaurant who are talking so loudly on a phone all completely unaware of their surroundings and what they're telling the entire group if it didn't just take them into some other space?

CAVANAUGH: Now, there is a move in the California legislature, one legislator is making a move to make hands-free texts illegal. I wasn't even really clear about what that is! But apparently you just speak into the device and it texts for you. So they want repeal that law that makes that legal to be able to do that hands-free. Do you think there's a possibility that eventually it will be illegal, completely, to use a cellphone even if it is hands-free?

HILL: I think that would be an excellent idea. Whether that cash implemented or not isn't clear. One of the problems for the officers is figuring out when that hands-free activity is happening.

CAVANAUGH: I was going to ask, how would you be able to enforce a law like that?

BAILEY: Just the same as we do with the texting laws right now. What we do is we see a vehicle and we look at the type of driving it's doing. If it's poor driving, that gives yous a reason to stop it. We have to find out what's going on, if there's a medical emergency, we contact the driver. And even from that, it's -- there's not a law out there that says you can't eat cereal out of a bowl while driving. However if you're doing that and weaving back and forth, we're going to cite you. So we would still do that, if they come up with no cellphones at all, we would find a way to enforce that law.

CAVANAUGH: So you cite the action you observe rather than what causes the action. If you can't prove someone was driving on a cellphone, you can still cite the driver for driving erratically.

BAILEY: Correct.

CAVANAUGH: Is it easy to spot somebody who, if you do spot somebody on a cellphone and they put it down, do they say no, officer, you're wrong?

CAVANAUGH: It didn't happen?

BAILEY: We do get that. Especially when we stop somebody for a cellphone violation, we like to watch them and see their driving. And then at that point, we can make the traffic stop. So we already have the visual evidence before we even turn our lights on and pull that over.

CAVANAUGH: And remind us what the fine is for driving using a hand-held cellphone.

BAILEY: The minimum fine the first time is $159.

CAVANAUGH: Does it go up?

BAILEY: It does go up with your second violation and so on.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you both, and I know that you're not in law enforcement, Dr. Hill, but isn't this the kind of a law that needs the public to sign on to in order for it to really be effective? In other words if people still want to do this, if they still want to use their cellphones and learn how to drive without weaving while they're talking, this would seem to me that you need the buy-in from the public on this. What would you say to that, officer Bailey?

BAILEY: We a lot of times compare it to the seatbelt laws. At the very beginning it was very difficult to train yourself to put your seatbelt on every time you got into the car. However, most people wear their seatbelts nowadays. It's the same thing. We're going to have to get used to not reaching for that cellphone while driving. And it will happen through enforcement campaign like we're doing here in April. Also with the public education through public service announcements, we're out there educating our high school students, our middle school student, even as young as elementary and preschool, teaching them as you're driving your little cars now, don't pick up a cellphone and act like you're talking like mommy and daddy. Put it down. We don't do that while driving.

CAVANAUGH: Interesting. And Dr. Hill, what about this buy-in from the public? Do you think surveys like this are part of this education program that has to be underway?

HILL: Absolutely. We have had some great public changes. Drunken driving, the way we think about it, seatbelts as the officer says, as well as second-hand smoke. Look how in 1 generation we've changed the way second-hand smoke affects our lives. And these are the kinds of things we can do by changing social norms and attitudes and getting buy-in from the public that this is an unacceptable behavior.

CAVANAUGH: Isn't the case that you're making while other thing, a conversation in the car, unruly kids, spilling a cup of coffee, while all of these do distribute to distracted driving that use of a cellphone is one thing that you can eliminate?

HILL: Yes. And it seems to be more of a distraction than having passengers. When you have a passenger in the car, sometimes they unconsciously change the conversation, stop the conversation when they see you're engaged in -- I like to think that my husband is a better driver when I tell him what's coming up ahead.

HILL: So it doesn't seem to be the same as talking on the phone, talking to a passenger.

CAVANAUGH: What's being -- what are the reasons that people would stop this kind of behavior? It seems to me it happened with second-hand smoke and so forth. To really realize that there's a risk involved to themselves and their passengers. What do we know about what's been showing up in emergency rooms or the types of crashes that distracted driving might cause? I'm going to put that out to either one of you. Officer Bailey?

BAILEY: A lot of people won't realize it until it occurs to them. When they have been hit by an intexticateed driver, they get upset. And they tell their children, they tell their friends, stop and don't do that. Just as if you see somebody smoking in a restaurant, you would have no problem walking up and saying you can't smoke here. We need to get that way when it comes to texting and talking on your cellphone and seeing other drivers doing it. &%F0

CAVANAUGH: And Dr. Hill, do we see more people turning up in emergency rooms or the consequences of this kind of risky driving?

HILL: Well, we know that injury deaths are the leading cause of death to age 45 in the United States. And the No. 1 cause of those is motor vehicle crashes. We no longer call them accidents. There are real predictors of these things.

CAVANAUGH: You were talking about the outreach that the CHP is involved in, and teaching even very young children not to be like mommy and daddy and talk in the car. I'm wondering if someone has been cited for cellphone use. Is there any kind of remedial program like there is for a drunk driver to learn or the way to kind of wean themselves off this behavior?

BAILEY: Well, they always have the opportunity to go to traffic school. My suggestion is if you have gotten a cellphone ticket, or you have not received one or are afraid of getting one, put your cellphone off, put it in your drunk, and try driving around for an entire day without taking a glance at it. If you find yourself in a situation where it's, like, wow, I really need to make a phone call, think about it. Would you 30 years ago have stopped at a pay phone for that reason to make that phone call?

CAVANAUGH: That's a good one. I like that. Yes, because there's a lot of this superfluous communication that goes on these days. Now, what is your feeling? How is San Diego doing with this? We've got these statistics. But between you and your colleagues, do you think people are getting the message?

BAILEY: We enjoy when yearsitting and the public comes up and says I don't use my cellphone. I keep it in the glove box or I've trained my child not to use it. Or we downloaded an application where if your car is moving then your phone shuts off and won't do outgoing calls unless it's an emergency. And we do appreciate that. It's much more of a positive view from the public.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, I want to thank you both.