Distracted is the new drunk

Posted: February 09, 2012

I never drink and drive. Now and again, though, I talk on my cellphone while speeding down a highway.

What's the difference? In terms of safety, not much. Studies show that drivers using cellphones are as likely to crash as those who are intoxicated. So when I talk and drive, I'm as dangerous as if I'd been drinking.

But the law lets me to do it. True, Pennsylvania recently became the 35th state to prohibit texting while driving. Yet the new measure effectively invalidated a Philadelphia ban on driving while using a handheld cellphone, which is illegal in New Jersey, New York, and seven other states.

And recent research suggests that using hands-free devices while driving might actually be more dangerous than using handheld ones, because they make drivers feel safe even though they're just as distracted.

Overall, cellphone distractions cause an estimated 2,600 traffic deaths per year.

So why not just ban drivers from cellphone use, period? That's what the National Transportation Safety Board recommended in December, eliciting a storm of skepticism in statehouses around the country. Even supporters of the idea said it would never fly. "It's a political nonstarter," declared the author of California's ban on handheld devices. "It'll be a cold day in hell before people give up their phones altogether in cars."

But that's exactly what people once said about drinking and driving: that it was too deeply ingrained in American culture to change. And they turned out to be wrong - which suggests that we can also change our culture of talking and driving.

Just accidents

As historian Barron H. Lerner shows in his 2011 book One for the Road, laws against drunken driving date back to the early 20th century. But most of these early measures defined "drunk" as having a blood-alcohol level of at least 0.15 percent, the equivalent of about six or more drinks on an empty stomach. And even when drunken drivers caused high-profile accidents, like the one that killed Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell in 1949, Americans often expressed as much sympathy for the culprit as they did for the victim. Indeed, the term accident implied that the driver wasn't completely at fault.

When baseball star Mickey Mantle crashed into a telephone pole after a drunken binge in 1963, ejecting his wife from the car, he wasn't even charged with driving under the influence. Mantle, a notorious boozer, simply paid $400 to replace the damaged pole.

It wasn't until the 1980s, with the birth of the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving, that public sentiment would start to change. MADD was founded by the mother of a 13-year-old girl who was killed by a drunken driver with four prior DUI arrests. The last had occurred just two days before the girl's death, when a judge let the man go home without even confiscating his license.

Such tragedies, heavily publicized by MADD and other citizen groups, spurred state legislatures to stiffen penalties for drunken driving and to lower permissible blood-alcohol levels. But the reforms met resistance at every turn. Just as cellphone users now insist that they can drive fine, so did drunken drivers.

"Most of the people who slide boozily behind their steering wheels are not criminal types," the Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley wrote in 1981, "but nice middle-class folks, just like you and me." Recalling his own "vehicular carousing" as a younger man, Yardley said it was a "miracle" that he had survived it.

Much progress

Today, 13,000 to 17,000 people die annually because of drunken driving, down from 25,000 in 1980. So while we've made progress, we also have a long way to go. Americans still take an estimated 90 million car trips a year with a driver who is legally intoxicated. And they're too willing to forgive and forget when people break the law.

Several years ago, for example, reports surfaced that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had both been arrested for drunken driving when they were younger. And the nation yawned. Would we have shown similar equanimity if they had been charged with, say, drug possession? I doubt it.

Or consider the saga of then-Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte Stallworth, who served just 30 days in jail after killing a pedestrian in a 2009 drunken-driving episode. By comparison, then-Giants receiver Plaxico Burress had to serve two years for accidentally shooting himself (and nobody else) at a New York nightclub.

Still, drunken driving is much more taboo than it was a quarter-century ago. We need to attach the same stigma to using cellphones while driving, starting with comprehensive bans on the practice.

That won't make it go away any more than drunken driving did. But I would be less likely to do it, and so would you. And more of us would live.


Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press). He can be reached at jlzimm@aol.com.

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