Wichita State professor studying No. 2 killer: distracted driving

Dr. Jibo He is a professor of psychology. He currently spends 16 hours a day studying how we’ve recently begun trying to accidentally kill ourselves and others.

Just a few years ago, drunken driving was the one big killer on our roads. Now we have two.

Drunken driving still kills 30 people a day. But hundreds of thousands of us began talking on cellphones while driving just a few years back.

Then more people did it – and added texting while driving.

Then even more people made calls, texted – and began “webbing while driving.” With only one hand on the wheel, they swipe their thumb on the screen of their smartphone, log onto the Internet and chat on Facebook, tweet on Twitter, watch videos and look at photographs.

Suddenly, distracted driving kills nine people a day. Dr. He thinks this will get worse.

Distracted driving last year killed 3,328 people and injured 421,000, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Four years ago, 13 percent of all drivers in a survey told State Farm that they drove while “webbing.” This year, 24 percent admitted to it. Young people under 25 also told State Farm that half of them web while driving.

Dr. He thinks many people surveyed are lying from embarrassment. He thinks the real number of people texting, talking and webbing while driving is much higher; a Penn State study he cited had 91 percent of the persons surveyed admitting to doing it, some with children in the car.

Imagine how bad it might get in a year or so, Dr. He said. Google glasses will be common. And that guy driving toward you will have an interactive screen dangling right before his distracted eyeball.

Driving blindfolded

Lt. Joe Schroeder of the Wichita Police supervises accident follow-up. He’s a longtime commander surprised by what he sees every day.

“Imagine driving down Kellogg for eight seconds or so, blindfolded, at 65 miles per hour, in heavy traffic, at rush hour,” he said. “No one would say they’d do that.

“But when I drive in an unmarked car, it’s like half of those who drive past me have their heads down, looking in their laps.”

Driving while distracted is a traffic violation, he said. The Kansas law says in part that “no person shall operate a motor vehicle on a public road or highway while using a wireless communications device to write, send or read a written communication.”

Distracted driving is really hard to prove. It’s not like drunken driving, where you’re either drunk, or not drunk.

Officers will seize cellphones after an accident, if they find them ejected from cars. They check to see whether texts were sent or calls made at the time of the accident.

If there is a fatality, Schroeder said, they will try to get a search warrant for the phones. But even that probably won’t show whether a driver was webbing while driving.

Usually, unless a witness tells police a driver was distracted, there are few sure ways for officers to know distraction caused an accident, he said. So there haven’t been many confirmed distraction accidents.

“But it’s incredible, what people do now,” Schroeder said. “It’s like this has just suddenly taken over our society.”

At any given daylight moment across America, 660,000 drivers are using cellphones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Talking on cellphones alone caused at least 1.1 million vehicle crashes in 2011, the National Safety Council estimates. It estimates that anywhere from 213,000 to 694,000 more were caused by texting.

But it also thinks distracted driving is underreported.

There was one case where Wichita police were sure it happened:

In 2010, a man texting on Kellogg ran his car into the back of a patrol car that had stopped to help a stranded motorist. If the officer had been inside the patrol car, police said, he would have been killed. But he was outside – and saw the other driver texting.

New apps

No law will stop this recklessness, Dr. He said. We can’t seem to help ourselves.

So Dr. He is inventing an app that would shut off our smart devices while we drive. Researchers who work with him say he’s a psych professor with additional skill in writing new software.

Paul Atchley is a professor of psychology and the director of the Cognitive Psychology Program at the University of Kansas. He disagrees with Dr. He a little, about the usefulness of laws, and whether new apps can solve this.

He said there are already apps that can shut off smart devices, a fact Dr. He confirmed. But the behavior that prompts recklessness is so addictive that most of us, confronted by such an app, will find a work-around, Atchley said.

Young people, the group of drivers most at risk for death behind the wheel, can be clever at finding work-arounds, he said. According to a 2013 survey by State Farm, 48 percent of young motorists from 18 to 29 used mobile phone-based Internet while driving.

The reason laws are important, even if we currently ignore them, is that they set a tone: that this behavior is wrong, Atchley said.

“The first drunk driving law was passed in 1917, but no one diligently enforced those laws until the 1970s,” Atchley said. After the 1970s, public pressure grew, anti-drunken-driving groups coached the populace – and laws set a tone.

Drunken driving deaths dropped from 6.3 per 100,000 drivers in 1991 to 3.2 deaths by 2011, a fall of 49 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Dr. He said Atchley makes good points.

“We don’t really disagree except in what we emphasize,” Dr. He said. But he’s going to keep working on that new app software, and says he’s sure he can produce one that saves lives and pleases users.

Two things at once

People differ in safety psychology from person to person, and from culture to culture. Dr. He grew up in China.

“Almost no one buckles on a safety belt in China,” he said. “But a lot of Americans do.”

Public opinion polls show that most Americans favor laws against distracted driving. And yet many people break those laws.

Thirty-nine states now have laws prohibiting driving while using a communications device, Dr. He said.

Most states seem to allow “hands-free” communications – headsets instead of cellphones. And many new devices are supplementing the manual typing of text with highly accurate voice dictation.

But both Atchley and Dr. He said these devices are bad for driving, too.

“Your brain is not paying full attention when you’re both driving and talking,” Atchley said. “A lot of people don’t realize this, but talking is one of the most difficult things we do.”

There are also interesting psychological differences, Dr. He said. Type A people probably tend to drive distracted more, Dr. He said.

“They are the kind of people you see working out at the Y, where they are reading a book while running on the treadmill, two things at once,” he said. “They are confident by nature, and because they haven’t had an accident yet, they think they won’t have an accident.

“The more they drive and text, the more they think they are good at doing two things. But they are not good at either driving, or texting.”

Dr. He said distracted driving can also lead to distracted messaging. Driving while messaging someone can lead to accidentally sending a boss or a spouse an embarrassing message.

He knows of a man who got a text from his wife, who meant to send her dear husband a birthday wish. But she texted: “Happy Birthday, dead husband.”

Investing in safety

For the last five years, State Farm has invested heavily in pleading with people to quit texting, talking and webbing, said Josh Bolduc, a State Farm agent in Wichita. Bolduc came to Dr. He’s office to explain.

The company has tried a little of everything, he said. Bolduc himself asks clients, including young drivers and their parents, to watch films he shows them about the dangers of distracted driving. The company does public education programs.

State Farm also invested money to help Dr. He research distracted driving behavior. Dr. He won’t say how much, but he said it was helpful to much of his research.

The company also offers various driver monitoring programs, including with apps and other equipment installed in cars to monitor and grade drivers, offering discounts to good drivers.

“We get some push-back from that; people ask whether Big Brother is watching,” Bolduc said. “But for us this is just a discount program.

“It costs State Farm a lot of money when people smash up cars.”

But the company does all this also to keep people from killing or injuring themselves or others.

There are also lawsuits to worry about, Bolduc pointed out. If you are found liable, you can lose property and money in lawsuit settlements, Bolduc said. Your income can be garnished for decades if you don’t have enough liability insurance.

‘Too dangerous’

When he moved to Wichita several years ago, Jake Ellis noticed that Wichitans didn’t drive as distracted as people in Dallas, where he is from.

“In Dallas all you have to do is look out the window at the next car, and you almost always see distracted driving,” he said.

Ellis works as Dr. He’s research assistant, putting WSU students into the seat of automobile driving simulators. He tests them as they drive and text and web. And when he hands them Google glasses.

When Ellis tests students, he sees behaviors similar to those on Dallas freeways: weaving, crossing lane lines, taking risks.

Ellis recently handed WSU freshman Huston Howery a pair of Google glasses and had him drive Dr. He’s $60,000 auto simulator. He also had him drive simulation while using his smartphone.

Howery said he never texts and drives.

“I think it’s just too dangerous,” he said.

He has ridden as a passenger with friends who pull out their smartphones and text or call. It made him nervous.

“I don’t really see the value of why they do this,” he said. “The texts are usually something like: ‘Where are you at?’ ”

The simulations made him more nervous.

“Holding the phone, only one hand on the steering wheel, I would catch myself drifting or swerving.

“The Google glasses are a little easier to use at the wheel but it’s still distracting.”

His advice: “Don’t ever use anything. It’s not worth the risk.”

‘No safe way’

Atchley concurred.

“The bottom line for me is that there simply is no safe way to have these devices with you while you’re driving,”

He thinks our new toys touch something deep in our psychologies.

They make us compulsive.

They get us addicted.

And they sometimes kill us.

He wishes Dr. He good luck with his new app. But he has a simpler solution.

“You could put your phone in your glove box,” he said.

“But it’s so addictive if your phone went off in the glove box, you might be tempted to pull it out.

“So the safest thing you could do when you drive is shut your phone off.

“And put it in your trunk.”