Think back to your driver’s-ed course. You probably remember plenty of scare-you-straight messaging about drinking and driving. But the dangers of talking to Siri, fiddling with the dashboard touchscreen, and texting a friend that you’re en route weren’t part of the curriculum. These days we’re tethered to our phones, but there is no national law against using them while driving—and doing so leads to an alarming number of accidents. In 2016 alone, 3,450 people died from distracted driving in the U.S. The problem is real, but the solution is well within our power. To ensure that your travel memories are happy ones, we share advice from top advocates and organizations that are dedicated to making our streets safer.
1. Stow Your Phone
Install an app like DriveMode (available for all carriers) or initiate your cell’s do-not-disturb-while-driving setting so that calls, texts, and notifications are blocked when the car is in motion. Better yet, turn the phone off entirely. During daytime hours, about 481,000 drivers use their devices while behind the wheel, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). And remember, hands-free is not risk-free. “Talking on the phone is as distracting as texting or manipulating it,” says Bonnie Raffaele, who founded the nonprofit Kids Driving Responsibly Challenge after her 17-year-old daughter Kelsey died in a collision while on her phone in 2010. “You can’t multitask—one thing becomes primary, and the other secondary. You’re paying attention to the conversation, not the road.”
Raffaele has successfully pushed the state of Michigan to pass Kelsey’s Law, which prohibits teens from using their phones when driving. “I knew nothing about making a law,” she says. “I started by rewatching "Schoolhouse Rock!’s" ‘I’m Just a Bill,’ which I remembered from high school.” She learned more about the legislative process on the internet, gained support from her representatives, printed tens of thousands of postcards for other Michiganders to sign, and even held press conferences on the state-capitol steps. Now she’s telling her story all over the country: “I had the perfect family, and a six-second phone call destroyed it. There’s no text, tweet, phone call, or email worth a life.”
2. Evaluate Your Energy Level
Recent research from the American Automobile Association (AAA) found that lack of sleep is a factor in about one out of every 10 crashes. The warning signs, says spokesperson Tamara Johnson, include drifting from your lane, not remembering the last few miles, and of course struggling to keep your eyes open. But frighteningly, “more than half of drivers involved in fatigue-related crashes did not experience any symptoms before falling asleep,” she says. To avoid the risk, make sure you get at least seven hours of shut-eye before taking the wheel; don’t drive during hours you’re not normally awake; and schedule a break every two hours or 100 miles. If you feel your head getting heavy, there’s only one thing to do: stop and take a 20-to-30-minute catnap. “Drinking coffee, singing, or rolling down the window will not work,” says William Van Tassel, manager of driving training for AAA. “Eventually, your body will succumb to its need for sleep.”
3. Ignore the Infotainment System
One-third of adults operate cars with dashboard computers featuring entertainment, navigation, and social-media apps. This trend is concerning safety advocates, including Joel Feldman, who founded the Casey Feldman Memorial Foundation and the organization End Distracted Driving when his 21-year-old daughter died after being hit by a driver using his GPS while she was crossing the street. “There have to be some things that we’re not doing in cars,” he says. Feldman points to a 2017 study that examined the visual and cognitive focus required of drivers to complete a task on an infotainment system. Programming navigation was the most distracting, but there’s an easy fix: Input a destination before turning on the ignition, and enable voice prompts. (Some newer systems require this by default.) “Or hey, pull over to the side of the road,” Feldman says.
4. Beware the Drugged Driver
Thanks to MADD and SADD, both founded in the early ’80s, we all know the deadly consequences of drunk driving. But a 2017 report by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) showed that drugs were present more often than alcohol in the blood tests of drivers who were killed in car crashes that year. A number of factors are likely causing this, says Russ Martin, GHSA’s director of government relations, including the legalization of recreational marijuana in some states and increased opioid use nationwide. “Drivers need to remember that a drug can be impairing even if it’s legal or you have a prescription,” Martin says. If you spot erratic driving that might be drug- or distraction-related, pull over and call 911, and report the color and make of the car. It’s also a good idea to take note of any pills you take that can cause drowsiness or dizziness, like Benadryl, Xanax, and Zoloft. If you’re unsure, check with your doctor, or enter the medication name at roadwiserx.com.
5. Protect Pedestrians
According to the NHTSA, a pedestrian is injured every seven minutes in a traffic crash, and one is killed every two hours. Community groups are popping up across the country to help affected families channel their grief into action. Dulcie Canton, who became an organizer for New York City’s Families for Safe Streets after surviving a hit-and-run on her bike in 2014, worked with the organization for about two years to gather signatures and lobby legislators to lower the city’s speed limit from 30 to 25 miles per hour. With that decrease, people hit by cars are more likely to survive if they get hit.
To address a dangerous intersection or stretch of road in your area, find out which elected officials to target with petitions and phone calls: Speed limits are often controlled by state officials; items like speed bumps and bike lanes can be pitched to city-council members. Canton adds that curb extensions and even planting trees along the street can slow drivers down. And when you’re behind the wheel in a residential area, follow her rule of thumb. “As we say, ‘Drive like your family lives here.’ All it takes is one second of not thinking, and everyone’s lives are changed forever.”