Seminar looks at ideas on how to prevent distracted driving

FILE - Woman driving in Austin while on her cellphone. (KXAN File Photo)
FILE - Woman driving in Austin while on her cellphone. (KXAN File Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Scientists say the answer to texting while driving may be locked in the brain. A Texas Department of Transportation seminar Thursday is designed to explore the issue of distracted driving.

“[Our] goal is to educate people about the dangers of distracted driving,” said TxDOT Spokeswoman Kelli Reyna. “One out of every five crashes in Texas is due to distracted driving. We are trying to get the message out.”

The seminar will also focus on how science and the state can team up to toughen the state’s laws. Scientists have found a connection between the brain’s response to pings and alerts from smartphones. Recent studies show smartphones can spark something similar to an addictive nature linked to phones.

Distracted driving is 100 percent preventable. And the science may explain why many people cannot stop driving distracted, said Reyna.

“We never really know why the message doesn’t sink in,” she said. “We are creatures of habit. What we are trying to do is get the message out in advance so you never have to deal with the heartbreak of losing a loved one.”

Right now, Texas does not have a statewide ban on distracted driving, like texting while behind the wheel. Since 2011, several bills died either in the state legislature or on the governor’s desk.

Last year, the state saw more than 100,000 crashes, 482 fatalities and 3,100 injuries because of distracted driving.

Michael Myers lost his 18-year-old daughter, Elana, in 2014. She was texting while driving home from Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

“We often think that we can talk on the phone or send a text and still drive and the reality is we can’t, Myers said. “In just a few seconds to the time you can count to five. Elana went from a happy, young woman and she was dead.”

He plans to attend the seminar with the message for drivers and state lawmakers.

“The message right now in the state of Texas is very inconsistent,” Myers said.” In Austin, you can’t use your phone but there’s nothing about Round Rock or Georgetown or going into Kyle or Seguin.”

The seminar is open to the public. It will be held between 9:15 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. Thursday at the Renaissance Austin Hotel, 9721 Arboretum Blvd.

Truck Drivers Get Distracted Too

When you think of a distracted driver what do you see? Some may imagine your typical Texan behind the wheel of sedan or pickup truck. But what about those behind the wheel of much larger vehicles, like an 18-wheeler? Dan Goodrich has been involved in driver education for over 25 years and he says a long drive can be exhausting. “On long boring trips to stimulate your mind when you’re driving, it’s easy to make a phone call.”

Goodrich says one of the biggest issue in transportation is the lack of driver to driver education to the dangers of distraction. “We must educate our drivers to pay attention all the time, every day.”

“Unfortunately the trucking industry is full of good truck drivers that are educating other truck drivers. However, they aren’t educators. They have a lot of difficulty explaining what they do, how they do it, why they do it in a manner somebody else can understand.”

Goodrich has developed a curriculum that teaches semi drivers how to stay focused on a long haul. He says at times drivers are put in tough situations because companies need to contact them immediately. “We have a culture where we don’t expect that driver to call immediately. We expect him to find a safe place to park.”

One policy working for many companies is to tell drivers to take the rig off the road and then contact dispatch, even if they are using a headset with Bluetooth. “We don’t want the driver spending time on the phone,”says Goodrich. This is just one more step to keep Texas roads safe.

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