How EMS can help end distracted driving

Most Americans know texting and driving is dangerous but do it anyway; EMS can change this by educating children


Article updated October 10, 2018

I am sure you know distracted driving is dangerous and puts you at greater risk of a collision. In a recent survey 98 percent of respondents reported knowing that texting and driving is dangerous. Inexplicably 74 percent of them did it anyway [1].

As EMS providers we witness the danger and carnage of distracted driving nearly every day. Almost 10 people are killed every day in the United States in collisions that involve a distracted driver [2]. That is more than 3,500 fatalities from distracted driving in the last 12 months. In 2016 an estimated 391,000 people were injured in collisions that involved a distracted driver [3]. 

In 2014 an estimated 421,000 people were injured in collisions that involved a distracted driver. (Image Greg Friese)
In 2014 an estimated 421,000 people were injured in collisions that involved a distracted driver. (Image Greg Friese)

EMS is at great risk of distracted driving collisions

Not only are we called upon to care for the victims of distracted driving collisions, but our life and safety are at considerable risk as we travel the roads and highways of our communities. The danger is especially significant when we are out of our vehicles attending to an emergency and traffic continues to stream by. Daniel Callaway, a volunteer firefighter/EMT, was struck when he came to the assistance of a driver involved in a crash. A Pa. EMT was struck by a texting driver.

In 2012, NHTSA reported that at any given moment 5 percent of drivers had a phone to their ear and estimated that almost that same percentage of drivers were using a hands-free device [4]. Remember that anytime you find yourself standing on the side of the road or in an intersection, 10 percent of the vehicles near you are being driven by a distracted driver. Ensure that awareness of distracted drivers and the high likelihood of a secondary collision is part of your crash scene training.

We know distracted driving is bad and we do it anyway

Distracted driving is not the only types of high risk behaviorwhere a large percentage of people acknowledge know it’s dangerous yet still engage in that behavior anyway.

Distracted driving is a unique high-risk behavior. Knowledge of the danger has not impacted participation. For other dangerous behaviors, like smoking or drug use, knowledge of the danger is universal and that is reflected in a low percentage of Americans participating in the risky behavior. 

  • I am confident that a very high percentage of Americans know smoking is bad for their health. About 18 percent of Americans smoke, the lowest percentage in decades [5].
  • I am hopeful that the gap between Americans that know heroin is dangerous and the 1.6 percent of Americans that have used heroin is vast [6].
  • I am not sure how many of us realize that soda is bad for our long-term health, but encouragingly less than half of Americans drink soda each day [7].

I am encouraged that various education campaigns about the dangers of distracted driving have been so successful. Clearly knowledge has changed. Unfortunately behavior, even for EMTs on the job, has not.

First responders can engage kids to help parents cut down on distracted driving. (Photo/Greg Friese)
First responders can engage kids to help parents cut down on distracted driving. (Photo/Greg Friese)

Kids lead the way on behavior change

"Dad, where is our fire extinguisher?" my 7-year-old asked as she burst through the door after school.

"Under the kitchen sink," I said.

"Is it still good?” she asked. “The firefighters told me to check as soon as I got home."

We looked at the extinguisher and confirmed it was functional and up-to-date.

An hour later, in the middle of dinner, "Dad we need to practice our fire escape plan. Right now. The firefighter told us to practice the plan tonight at dinner. What is our escape plan?"

As instructed ─ because who can put off a child that wants to prepare for an emergency ─ we pushed away from the table, leaving our meal half-eaten, and drilled our home fire escape plan. The firefighters, highly respected by my children, empowered my son and daughter with a specific call to action to practice a behavior.

My kids repeat this routine – fire extinguisher, smoke detector, and fire escape plan – every October after the firefighters visit their school. The firefighters give the kids knowledge and a script to use at home saying something like, "When you get home tonight – first thing – ask your parents where the fire extinguishers is kept."

The kids dutifully follow the instructions and as a family we have a great fire safety review.

EMS, police, and fire can change distracted driving behavior

EMTs, paramedics, firefighters, and police officers, please engage the children that come to your stations and tour your ambulances, cruisers, and fire apparatus. Lead the campaign to change the dangerous behavior of driving while distracted.

Add a few minutes during every tour or classroom visit to discuss the dangers of distracted driving. Ask the kids, "Does your mom ever send or read text messages while driving you to school?" or "Does your dad talk on the phone on the way to soccer practice?"

I suspect many of the kids will answer yes and with minimal prodding tell a near-miss story or an actual collision they were involved in to you and their classmates. Kids love telling stories.

Next, equip the kids to change behavior in the vehicles they ride in. Something simple will do. I know kids will be glad to help you, their role models and heroes, make the roads safer.

"Mom, we both know that our risk of crashing goes up if you are texting. The paramedics said you should put down your phone, focus on driving, and ask me about my day at school."

Or

"Dad, we both know distracted driving is dangerous. The EMTs told me you should move your phone out of reach as we drive to soccer practice."

My script to stop distracted driving

I have a script that I have used on paramedic partners driving the ambulance, taxi drivers, Uber drivers, bus drivers, and friends and family. My script is simple and well-rehearsed, "Please put down your phone. I have two young children at home. They need me to get home today. I will do the same for you – not look at or use my phone – while I am driving. Thanks for putting down your phone."

I use something similar when an EMS chief calls me while driving their department issued vehicle. "Chief I am glad to talk, but for the safety of you and those around you let's reschedule for a time you are not driving. When can I call you back?"

Give the kids the script and an assignment

My script works – one vehicle and one driver at a time. As an emergency responder you have the opportunity to exponentially multiply the number of people, especially children, using a script to change driving behavior, in turn making the roads safer for you and the communities you serve.

References

1. Drivers get a rush from text messaging: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/dr-gridlock/wp/2014/11/06/drivers-get-a-rush-from-text-messaging/

2. Distracted Driving: http://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/distracted_driving/

3. Distracted Driving: https://www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/distracted-driving

4. Driver Electronic Device Use in 2012: http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811884.pdf

5. Smoking and tobacco use, fast facts: http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fast_facts/

6. DrugFacts: heroin http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin

7. Nearly Half of Americans Drink Soda Daily: http://www.gallup.com/poll/156116/nearly-half-americans-drink-soda-daily.aspx

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