Using your phone while driving? Put it away and just drive

I'm as addicted to smartphones as anyone could be, but I don't text and drive. After nearly being rear-ended last week, I'm sick and tired of seeing so many people interacting with their phones on the road. It's time to #justdrive.

When I was growing up, if you wanted to talk to someone on the phone when you were away from your house or workplace, you pulled into a parking lot where there was a pay phone and made the call. It's time we either make cell phones inoperable while driving, optimized to minimize the distraction, or update the laws, and increase enforcement, so that usage is severely limited.

Washington State, my home state, was the first state to pass a texting ban in 2007. That was the year the first Apple iPhone launched and since 2007 mobile technology, and ease of access to it, has changed significantly.

We now see millions of teenagers -- inexperienced drivers -- using smartphones for social networking, navigating with GPS, making calls, taking selfies, and more. Unfortunately, these young people are also doing most of this from behind the wheel.

It's not just young people that are on their smartphones while driving, but that group tends to have fewer experiences under their belt to use good judgment regarding appropriate use. They are also not as experienced at driving with others around them who are distracted by technology.

Close call with a young distracted driver

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(Image: AAA)
Just last week, my daughter and I were driving on jam-packed road with a 40 mph speed limit. Traffic was stop and go for about a mile and I noticed a young woman behind us driving a Lexus who kept looking down in her lap, then up again. She would speed up when she looked up and get right behind me and then look down when traffic flow stopped. She did this a couple of times and I told my daughter that the young lady behind us better knock it off or she was going to get in a wreck.

A few seconds later she accelerated towards the rear of my car with not obvious action of slowing down. I quickly pulled up and off to the right side of the road just as she slammed on her brakes and skidded to a stop right where I would have been if I had not been aware and taken evasive action. There was absolutely no reason to be going the speed that she was in stop-and-go traffic. Thanks to the 30 years of driving experience I have, my daughter and I were able to avoid an accident and hopefully the young woman learned a lesson as well.

After my heart beat slowed back down to normal my daughter and I had a conversation about using your phone while driving. I restated our family policy that any use of a phone by them behind the wheel meant that I took the car away and they found alternative means to get around. Thankfully, they know I am serious and avoid using their phones behind the wheel.

Washington State law reform

The current 2007 law in Washington State only bans sending text messages and talking with your phone held to your ear. It does not address using your phone for email, surfing the internet, accessing social networks, taking selfies, and more. The law also only applies when the car is moving, not while one is stopped at a stoplight or stop sign.

The current law is nearly impossible for police to enforce. How can they determine what someone is doing on their phone? The law needs to be changed to apply to all smartphone use. Police would be able to see someone doing a head bob to look down at their phone, view the glow of a smartphone on your face at night, and see you holding it in your hand as you drove.

An updated law passed the Senate, but then hit a road block in the House and was not passed this session. I understand the points made by the opposition that eating, reaching for things, and handling your dog are also distractions that you should try to avoid. However, smartphone use is high among the inexperienced drivers on the road and enforcement against a total ban is easier to enforce than these other forms of distraction.

WA State currently assesses a fee for texting and driving violations. While these fees can add up and change some behavior, I think it's time to increase the consequences as well. Make these violations a part of a driver's record, suspend licenses for repeat offenders, and even consider jail time for habitual offenders. The damage, often even death, caused by distracted driving related to technology is not worth sharing a stupid selfie to Twitter.

Wireless carriers and campaigns

AT&T and other US wireless carriers have awareness campaigns with statements such as It Can Wait and stickers on every new phone in order to discourage texting and driving. AT&T and others also have utilities on the phone to prevent their use while driving.

Hands-free usage

While we can't go back to pay phones and must figure out ways to use the technology we have on hand, there are safer ways to handle calls while driving. The first option is to pull into a safe location off the road, stop the car, and make your call. I try to limit the calls I accept or initiate while driving just to those that are very important, but like too many of us I do admit to making some hands-free calls when I am behind the wheel.

One of the criteria that I pay attention to during reviews is the volume of the speakerphone because I prefer to use the smartphone speaker rather than a Bluetooth headset. I also have older cars without integrated Bluetooth, but if your automobile does have that capability then please use it if you really must call. My mother-in-law has a car with it and making calls from the steering wheel controls and hearing the caller over the speakers is an experience that helps reduce some distractions so you can try to stay focused on the road.

Today's digital voice assistants have also been developed to the point where you can carry out text conversations without your hands too. Text message conversations are probably even less distracting than calls since there is no emotion in the text message and the information exchange takes place at a slower pace than direct calls.

Can smartwatches help or are they still too distracting?

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(Image: Distraction.gov)
I've been using the Apple Watch, check out my full review, for a few weeks and have used it to accept phone calls while walking around the city. Using a smartwatch for phone calls while driving would allow you to keep two hands on the wheel and your eyes forward so may be useful for urgent communications.

I actually think using a smartwatch for GPS navigation is even better than having a big smartphone screen lit up with your maps. The Apple Watch uses specific haptic patterns to inform you of either a left or right turn so you can keep both hands on the wheel and drive without ever looking at your smartwatch display.

However, I personally advocate not even using smartwatches while driving. People would eventually still find ways to use them for more than basic communications and may even then start gaming on them while driving, or worse.

As the campaigns around the country recommend, please just drive.

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