Mary Lou Jay
Need an incentive to keep your eyes (and your attention) on the road? Consider a recent survey of the driving and cell phone habits of students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). It found that more than more than one-third of the students surveyed use some mobile phone app while behind the wheel, even as they're maneuvering through traffic.
A UAB psychology student asked 93 of her fellow students -- smartphone owners who used Internet apps -- whether they used those apps while driving. Thirty-five percent of respondents admitted that they did, and 10 percent said that they used apps "often," "almost always" or "always' while behind the wheel.
That's close to the numbers that Nationwide Insurance found in its 2010 Driving While Distracted survey. Nationwide's survey showed that 25 percent of all cellphone users -- and 37 percent of cellphone users under age 35 -- download mobile apps to their cellphones. One in four of those app downloaders say they use the apps while driving. The most frequent app-based activities, according to the survey, are using GPS, text messaging, sending and receiving email, browsing the Internet, and reading messages and posting on Facebook.
More than half of those with GPS applications admitted that they use them while moving (although most claimed that they wait until they're stopped in traffic or at a light). What's frightening for other drivers is that more than 40 percent of those who check emails or text messages do so while they're moving. Again, the majority -- more than 80 percent -- claimed to be stopped when performing these activities.
Accessing apps while driving is just one example of distracted driving. There are three main types of distracted driving, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation: visual, cognitive and manual. Using apps often involves all three types of distraction because they require users to take their eyes and minds off the road, as well as their hands off the wheel.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 20 percent of crash injuries and 18 percent of crash deaths in 2009 involved some form of distracted driving. NHTSA also found that drivers under 20 and those between 20 and 29 years old were the age groups with the highest percentage of distracted drivers involved in fatal crashes -- 16 percent and 13 percent, respectively.
States have gradually been changing laws to restrict the use of cell phones (and presumably their apps). The Governors Highway Safety Association reports that as of August 2011, nine states and the District of Columbia prohibit all drivers from using handheld cell phones. An additional 21 states ban cell phone use by novice drivers. To date, 34 states and the District have banned text messaging for all drivers, and another seven have prohibited novice drivers from texting while behind the wheel.
But not all apps are distracting. In fact, some anti-distracted driving apps "lock" your phone while the car is moving, preventing you from texting, checking email or using the Internet while driving.