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Distracted driving: Put down that phone and keep your eyes on the road

Talking, texting, and complicated car controls increase dangers

Published: May 2013

American roads have become the domain of the distracted, with millions of drivers texting or talking on the phone instead of looking at the road ahead. The results of such behavior can be dangerous—and deadly. If you text while driving, you’re 23 times more likely to crash (PDF), according to one government study. And in 2011, more than 3,000 people were killed and 387,000 were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver.

Phone usage isn't the only culprit. Dashboard technology, including Internet-connected infotainment systems, are also a serious distraction. What's more, some of the latest controllers and touch screens are signficantly more complicated than traditional buttons and knobs.

In a recent Consumer Reports survey, 17 percent of respondents said they owned a car with a multifunction controller, and 9 percent had a touch screen. About half of each of those groups said they found performing common tasks, such as adjusting the radio and cabin temperature, somewhat or very distracting.

To address the growing concerns about in-car distractions, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued long-awaited guidelines for car companies last month. The guidelines include recommendations to limit the time drivers must take their eyes off the road to perform any task to 2 seconds at a time and 12 seconds total. NHTSA's guidelines also encourage automakers to disable manual texting, social-media access, Web-browsing features, and video-based calling unless a vehicle is stopped and in park.

Those efforts are good steps toward making our roads safer and helping save lives.

At Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, we’ve made distracted driving a priority, with a special emphasis on young drivers. In partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation, we’ve produced a free guide for parents and educators (PDF) and posted a series of videos about teen-driver safety.

We firmly believe that a coordinated effort of driver education, technology solutions, and smart policymaking are critical to fighting this problem.

We’ve seen some encouraging signs. In that recent survey, for instance, 71 percent of respondents said they stopped or reduced texting, using a handheld phone, or operating a smart phone while driving in the previous year; more than half of that group said they did so because of state laws. That figure represents a 27-percentage-point increase from a similar survey we conducted two years ago.

To learn more about what you can do to stop distracted driving, visit our special section on driving safety and

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the public-policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

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