The National Safety Council, a local dad and a trauma surgeon are raising awareness about the dangers of distracted driving.
By Laurie Yarnell
Would you drive the length of a football field blindfolded? Probably not, but consider this: If you’ve ever sent even a brief text while driving 55 mph, you’ve had your eyes off the road for the length of a football field. This dangerous and increasingly prevalent practice creates deadly consequences.
In 2013, the most recent year for which figures are available, studies suggest that more than 3,100 people were killed and 424,000 injured in distraction-related crashes in the U.S. According to the National Safety Council, cellphone use leads to 1.6 million crashes annually, which is why it has designated April as Distracted Driving Awareness Month, to raise awareness about this growing epidemic.
As Director of Surgery and Chief of General Surgery at Valhalla’s Westchester Medical Center (WMC), the flagship of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network, Rifat Latifi, MD, has seen firsthand the devastating effects of distracted driving car crashes and notes they can range from minor injuries to fatalities.
“There is no good reason that someone leaves the highway and hits a tree, unless they are terribly distracted,” says Dr. Latifi. “Study after study has demonstrated that we are not good at multitasking. So the idea that you can drive and text, read email or use social media while keeping your hands on the steering wheel and your mind on the road is simply not true,” he continues. “One of these tasks will suffer, and usually it will be the driving, and it may have catastrophic consequences for you, your family and those who share the road with you. A distracted driver is an impaired driver, and impaired drivers should not be on the road,” Dr. Latifi concludes.
One Chappaqua family knows all too well the devastation distracted driving can cause. On June 16, 2011, Ben Lieberman was at work in Manhattan when he received the phone call every parent dreads: His son had been in a car crash. Carpooling to his summer job doing construction work in Orange County, 19-year-old Evan Lieberman – who was a seat-belted passenger in the backseat – had been airlifted to Westchester Medical Center. Evan had suffered massive internal damage from the collision and died 31 days later, following 15 operations and numerous blood transfusions.
“I knew distracted driving was a problem, but I didn’t realize how bad a problem it was and that it involved more than just texting,” says Ben Lieberman. According to a study conducted by AT&T, 7 out of 10 drivers engage in smartphone activities while behind the wheel, including texting, speaking, surfing the Internet, emailing, using apps and even engaging in video chats.
Lieberman has channeled his grief into combating this dangerous practice, founding the nonprofit advocacy group DORCS (Distracted Operators Risk Casualties) and the charity Evan’s Team. The latter has, among other things, raised funds to completely revamp a family lounge at WMC’s Trauma Intensive Care Unit, to make it more comfortable and private for patients’ families, complete with sleeping spaces and showering facilities.
The group has also pioneered technology and authored legislation in New York State permitting police to carry a piece of equipment dubbed the Textalyzer. Similar to the Breathalyzer, this device allows an officer to test whether a driver was illegally physically typing keyboards or swiping screens at the time of a crash but does not reveal any private phone content. “
A drunk driver who barrels through a red light faces legal and financial problems and social stigma,” notes Lieberman, “because there are protocols in place and a device, the Breathalyzer, that helps identify the cause of impairment.” Right now, he says, there’s a whole different standard for a person who is emailing. “We want to help put the proper deterrents in place and move the needle to where this behavior is as unacceptable as drunk driving.”