Calling for a public health approach to control distracted driving from mobile devices

In an editorial published today  in the Journal of Public Health Policy, Anthony Robbins, MD, MPA calls on the public health community to take on the social problem of distracted driving caused by mobile devices.

“Only a public health strategy is likely to weave government, commercial, community, and individual tools available in schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods, into a comprehensive approach to make people safer while on or near roads.”

Robbins argues that the problem is more complex than drivers behaving badly.

“Around the world, new communication technology is ever more ubiquitous [and] large commercial interests promote these communication technologies.  It has always been a problem to keep powerful vehicles fully under control.  To do so, society has built safer vehicles and designed safer roads.  We have written laws to deter dangerous driving.  Yet addictions have always challenged road safety efforts, because under the influence of drugs and alcohol, to which they may be addicted, drivers cannot choose to drive safely.  Now comes a new addiction: the compulsion to be in touch, to communicate immediately. E-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and many elements of new media appear to be addictive, as the users feel a compulsion to communicate immediately.”

“How are commercial interests adapting to and enhancing user demand?  The makers of telephones and other communications devices have made them faster and easier to use, and, of course, more attractive to look at.  The telephone companies (Internet service providers) have spread their signals to reach almost everyone, everywhere, with more and more information sent and received per second.  The makers of cars and trucks are creating a new image to sell their product. Buyers seem attracted by new in-vehicle environments that emphasize distractions and communication rather than the road ahead.”

“Phone makers, service providers, and automakers could be developing technologies to keep the driver focused on the road, but if they are doing so at all, it is very slowly and less visibly.  …This is where the public health community is needed.  Let’s take the lead and study the technologies, the laws, and the addictive behaviors so that we can develop an inclusive strategy to control distracted driving.”

“…To eliminate distracted driving, public health can do more than focus on the distracted driver who causes damage, injury, and death.  A primary prevention strategy will lead us beyond the behavior of individuals to the corporations in the communications and automobile industries and government regulators.  Let us target them to change the driving environment within which drivers make choices.”