Limited distracted driving laws may leave Alaskans at risk for accidents

Texting is illegal in Alaska and widely recognized as dangerous, but research shows that other cellphone-related distractions may be just as harmful.

Since 2012, texting while driving has been illegal in Alaska. This law represents an important step toward addressing one of the more reckless and common distracted driving behaviors. Still, research suggests that this law may not adequately protect people in Anchorage and other parts of the state against distracted drivers. While texting is undeniably dangerous, other inattentive habits may be just as risky and frequently responsible for motor vehicle accidents.

Dangerous, often overlooked distractions

USA Today reports that in 2014, the National Safety Council released a report on the role that cellphone use plays in overall accidents, based on data from 2013 and prior years. The NSC found that cellphone use contributed to one-quarter of all accidents in the U.S. However, just 5 percent of all accidents - or slightly less than one-fifth of the cellphone-related accidents - involved texting. The majority involved drivers who were talking on handheld or hands-free cellphones.

Another study suggests that dialing or reaching for a cellphone can be as dangerous as texting. According to New York Daily News, researchers from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that novice teen drivers were seven times more likely to experience accidents or near-misses while dialing or reaching for phones; in contrast, texting raised accident risk fourfold for these drivers. For more experienced drivers, dialing a cellphone also affected crash risk more than any other activity.

On a broader level, cognitive distractions can be just as dangerous as manual or visual distractions. The National Safety Council notes that, like Alaska, many states have laws focusing primarily on eliminating texting or preventing drivers from talking on handheld cellphones. However, research shows that virtually any cognitive distraction can prove dangerous.

The distracted brain and driving

In a report released in 2012, the NSC explains that cognitive distraction can have several adverse affects on driving ability. People who think they are multitasking while performing two mentally demanding tasks are really switching rapidly between the tasks. This can result in mental limitations that raise the risk of accidents and serious or fatal injuries, such as the following impairments:

  • Reduced ability to process visual images - one study indicates that the part of the brain that conducts this crucial task shows significantly reduced activity when a person is listening to language.
  • Failure to take in key visual cues - drivers who are talking on cellphones, whether handheld or hands-free, may miss up to half of the stimuli in their environments, even if they think they are paying attention to their surroundings.
  • Slowed response times - when the brain jumps between tasks, delayed reaction times can result; in one simulation-based study, drivers who were legally intoxicated actually showed faster response times than drivers who were talking on cellphones.

These findings indicate that texting drivers are not the only distracted drivers who pose a significant threat to others.

Help after distraction-related accidents

People who have suffered injuries because of another driver's reckless actions may be able to seek compensation, even if the action in question is not explicitly illegal. However, in Alaska, an injured person's own actions and potential contribution to the accident can affect the person's ability to make a claim or collect full compensation. This makes properly documenting the circumstances of the accident crucial.

Anyone who has been injured in an accident involving driver inattention or negligence should consider meeting with an attorney for advice on pursuing appropriate compensation.

Keywords: distracted, driving, texting, accident