Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Advancing the Conversation: Distracted Driving & The Living Room-Mentality

The following entry is a follow-up to a very constructive comment written by Leroy Grinchy, in response to a Bic Control entry titled “Obama Administration: Distracted Driving is a Menace to Society” posted on 9/30/09. We dug the comment so much, that we decided to dedicate an entire post to further advance the conversation on the very important issue that is distracted driving. Also, blogspot wouldn’t allow us to post this in the comment section because it exceeded the word limit. We like words. Here are some that we hope you’ll enjoy, too:

Hi Leroy,

Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment; it's a very constructive and thoughtful piece.

You're right--driving can be pretty boring. And many people in American society do crave constant stimulation.

There is no simple "silver bullet" to combating the epidemic of distracted driving. Making it illegal to use cell phones while driving does help to some degree. But according to NHSC research (discussed above) cell phone usage is only responsible for 1.5% of drivers' distractions.

Nearly 54% of drivers' distractions are due to drivers acting like the inside of their cars are personal living rooms. This mentality, which we'll call the living room-mentality, is responsible for the following distractions in chronological order from largest to smallest:
-adjusting radio, CD, etc.
-"other" distractions, such as reaching for objects (pills & pens, etc.), writing down addresses and more.
-other objects in car
-eating & drinking
-cell phones

These figures are based off the NHSC graph and further defined in greater detail at the following link:

(By the way, 8% of distractions are due to 'unknown' causes).

There are two distractions which are particularly forgiving which we'll exclude for now--they are what NHSC calls 'medical problems' and 'child/infant distractions.' Even if you remove these two distractions from the equation, the % of distractions resulting from the living room-mentality is still astoundingly high; roughly 54%, in fact.

The advent of in-car televisions is further evidence that American motorists are
increasingly using their cars as portable living rooms.

(The device, pictured above-right, allows a motorist to use Windows and burn a dvd "on-the-go." Woooow. eHome Upgrade calls it 'Absolutely amazing.')

We believe that the living room-mentality that many Americans get into while driving--that being the idea that because their cars are privately-owned objects an owner can do virtually whatever he/she wants inside the car while driving on a road--is due to a larger social-psychological/cultural phenomena connected to privatism; further enhanced by suburban privatism.

Privatism--the old American desire to have one's "own [private] slice of the pie" w/ a front-yard, rear-yard, garage, etc.--is the main idea that built the suburbs. Post-WWII nuclear-scare era thinking further propelled the planning/development of suburban planning; which built isolation and radical privatism into urban design. Low-density suburbs, where homes were built far away from the workplace, allowed automobiles to flourish and even facilitated automobile dependency. Automobiles, and mainstream-America's fascination w/ automobiles, is a physical extension of the ideas of privatism.

One of the problems of suburban privatism is that when in privately-owned automobiles, many motorists act like they're still in their own private living room, where they can casually make phone-calls, eat food, take pills, send emails, shave or put on makeup. These things are normal to do in living rooms (or bathrooms) and fine to do when in private-automobiles while on private-property (such as a driveway). However, when the 3,000 lb metal private-automobile and the motorist controlling it venture onto a public-road, those above-mentioned behaviors need to be curbed—most importantly, for the safety of other innocent road users (especially cyclists, who are particularly vulnerable).

No one is a perfect driver; imperfection is a human characteristic. But we can all try harder to improve how we drive (and even ride).

A few months back, one of our writers was riding through Mission Valley. When said rider was riding though an intersection at a green light for him, a motorist approaching (a red light) from the perpendicular "crossing" street was traveling at an incredibly dangerous high-speed while talking on a cell phone. Luckily, our writer noticed this phone-using, speeding, driver approaching him and the rider began to slow down so that he would not be killed if the motorist decided to continue on with the same trajectory while running the light. The motorist did in fact decide to run the light and nearly completed his turn when he realized, at the last second, that there was a cyclist there. It was one of those high-speed, barely-yielding, right turn red-light runs. If our writer had not yielded to the speeding, cell-phone-talking motorist who intruded on our bike-commuting writer’s right-of-way, our writer may not have survived the near-collision.

Please note that the motorist offered no visible apology (i.e. a hand wave or an open hand) after nearly crashing into our writer.

The rider, now frustrated, continued on w/ his normal route as did the motorist. When the motorist was stopped a few blocks down the street and waited for a red light, the cyclist pulled over and communicated to the motorist, 'Hey. Hang up your phone!'

What was the motorist's response? His response was 'Mind your own business!'

Our writer responded 'My safety is my business!' And so on…

The speeding, cell-phone using, negligent motorist's response--'Mind your own business!'--is a perfect example of the "living room-mentality" in action. Many motorists think that because they're in a privately-owned piece-of-property they should be able to do virtually whatever they want while inside of their car, despite the fact that they're on public roads.

Again, this epidemic is a very complex social-psychological/cultural phenomena which is connected to larger things; such as suburban privatism, to name one.

To change this, we as a society need to have a mainstream paradigm-shift which re-examines our roles as motorists on public roads.

The Obama Administration's recent claim that distracted driving is an epidemic and menace to society is one huge step in that process. We applaud the Obama Administration for this. Thank you for getting the conversation going. It takes a lot for a White House Administration to stand up and “call out” deadly imperfections of one of America’s largest consumer groups; i.e. car-driving motorists.

And thank you, Leroy Grinchy for further advancing this very important conversation.

Leroy, your idea advocating for more round-a-bouts is a great one!

According to research cited in an excellent new book by Tom Vanderbilt, titled "TRAFFIC: Why We Drive The Way We Do and What It Says About US," the average speed in most roundabouts is half that of conventional intersections.

Not only that, but crashes in intersections are far less frequent in round-a-bout intersections compared to conventional intersections. According to one study (cited in the book), in intersections converted from signals and stop signs to roundabouts, the total crashes dropped nearly 40%, while injury crashes dropped 76%, and fatal crashes by 90% (Vanderbilt, 2008: pg. 178-179).

In short, our advocacy standpoint on round-a-bouts is the following:

Bic Control supports round-a-bouts, from a Livable Streets standpoint. Research shows that round-a-bouts calm automobile traffic.

Round-a-bouts force motorists to pay greater attention while driving on public roads.

When motorists are paying greater attention to the 3,000 pound vehicles they’re steering, and leave the living room-mentality for living rooms, public roads are safer for everyone.


  1. I'll second your endorsement of roundabouts. They slow traffic without all the stopping and starting of stop lights or signs. Traffic generally keeps moving, but at a safe, civilized pace. It's speed that kills.

  2. I totally agree with more roundabouts.

    The city of Golden, CO did a study on one of the major thouroughfares with round abouts. There conclusion was that it greatly increased safety along the stretch of road as well as business traffic.

    Read the study at: