LENOX

Some of us are afraid of flying, even though statistics prove it's the safest mode of travel, by far. Few of us are afraid of driving, even though distracted motorists pose a real and growing danger, as Consumer Reports describes in a new report.

Motorists attempting to multitask behind the wheel have reached epidemic levels, the magazine's National Research Center concluded. Cellphone use, including texting, caused more than 3,000 deaths on the road last year, and nearly 400,000 injuries.

Despite laws banning texting and restricting mobile phone use by drivers, not to mention basic common sense, 91 percent of people surveyed saw a motorist talking on a handheld phone in a 30-day period, while 62 percent saw a motorist texting and 22 percent witnessed a driver punching in a smartphone app.

Do people think texting while driving is very dangerous? Yes, said 91 percent of those surveyed. How about use of a handheld cellphone? Very dangerous, according to 51 percent.

There's a big-time disconnect here. When the survey asked what drivers had actually done behind the wheel in the previous 30 days, 43 percent admitting to talking on a handheld cell, 33 percent operated an app, 18 percent checked email or social media, and 14 percent texted. To repeat, all this was done while driving, not while at a stoplight or stuck in traffic.

A silver lining surfaced: In states with stringent laws covering distracted driving, a majority of motorists reported they had stopped or at least cut down their mobile phone use.


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But many drivers aren't sure of the laws in their own states.

Massachusetts is among the 39 states and D.C. where it's illegal to text behind the wheel; junior drivers (ages 16 and 17) in our state are not allowed to use a cellphone at all. That should apply to everyone, of course, but that's the case in only 10 states and D.C. Inexplicably, there's no push on Beacon Hill to tighten distracted driving regulations.

The statistics understate the problem, according to safety
officials.

"We know that cellphone use in crashes is under-reported," Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Administration, told Consumer Reports. "It's really difficult to get distraction data. If the crash is a survivable one, people generally are not honest about whether they've been using a cellphone."

If you text while driving at 55 mph, according to Federal highway safety research, that's the same as driving an entire football field in four seconds with your eyes closed.

Technology is available that would disable a handheld device in a moving vehicle. That sounds like a great plan, though computer geeks would likely find a way around it.

Legal or technological efforts to reduce the problem are labeled by some as infringements on personal freedom. A bogus argument, to be sure, but it has clout in certain states. To many of us, a key measure of personal freedom is the right to travel safely without risking life and limb.

Studies show that severe fines and potential license suspensions are the most effective tools to fight distracted driving. Massachusetts and Connecticut have been awarded federal grants to step up enforcement, including training police to detect texters.

Junior operators in our state risk a $100 fine and a 60-day license suspension if they're caught using mobile electronics. Again, that law should be extended to all drivers in Massachusetts and across the nation.

There's no ideal solution. State police and the National Safety Council have reported how challenging it is to enforce the laws already on the books, and to prove violations when suspected.

On this Mothers Day weekend, which launches the heaviest road-travel season of the year, the best gift we could present to our moms, and everyone else, costs nothing and only requires clear-headed common sense. Put the phone away, watch the road and, most of all, assume that the driver heading your way in the opposite lane could well be texting, checking email or chatting away on a handheld device.

Clarence Fanto is a Berkshire Eagle contributor. Reach him at cfanto@yahoo.com or (413) 637-2551.