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MADD: It's 21st Century Meaning

THE DEADLIEST WEEKEND OF THE YEAR

Memorial Day Weekend and the unofficial start of summer is upon us. For many people, that means traveling to see family and friends, to a beach, to the mountains, to anywhere to enjoy the long weekend. Triple A predicts that 41.5 million Americans will travel for the holiday this year, which is an almost 5% increase over 2017, and the highest number for a Memorial Day Weekend in approximately a dozen years—i.e. since before the Great Recession. Most of the travelers—36.6 million—will drive to their destinations (a 4.7% increase from 2017).

With this many vehicles on the roads, traffic is expected to be backed up even before the weekend officially begins. The busiest travel days are predicted to be Thursday and Friday, May 24-25, with the worst traffic day in Atlanta, Georgia, being Thursday, May 24, from 3:30-5:30, when early holiday travelers will compete with work commuters during rush hour for the roadways. A sign of consumer confidence and continued economic recovery is the fact that even the high gasoline prices across most of the country will not dampen people’s plans to travel an average of 50 miles to enjoy their holiday weekend.

Unfortunately, however, some people will never reach their destination. Memorial Day Weekend is the deadliest holiday weekend of the year; people are four times more likely to die in a traffic accident over Memorial Day Weekend than over a non-holiday weekend. Between 2011-2015, an average of 312 people died in traffic accidents over Memorial Day Weekend; Labor Day Weekend was close behind with 308 fatalities, and July 4th was next with 307 fatalities (July 4th is the deadliest single day of the year).

What accounts for these deadly statistics? While it is tempting to assign the drastic increase in fatalities to the drinking/partying that tends to occur over this holiday weekend, drunk driving is not the only menace on America’s highways.

THE DISTRACTED DRIVER

In 2013, ten percent of all fatal crashes involved distraction, resulting in 3,154 fatalities and 424,000 injuries. In the ensuing 5 years, Americans’ addiction to devices—and the increasing amount of connectivity to and use of devices in motor vehicles—has only increased, so it is safe to assume that fatalities and injuries due to distraction has as well.

A study by Zendrive found that drivers use their phones on 88% of trips and are distracted on average 3.5 minutes every hour. The study analyzed 3 million drivers over 6 billion miles of driving, between December 2016—February 2017. Although 3.5 minutes of distraction might not sound like much, a driver taking his or her eyes off the road for just 2 seconds—which if driving at 55mph is the equivalent of two basketball courts—increases the chances of an accident by 20 times.

In Georgia, motor vehicle crashes increased a whopping 36% between 2014—2016, with fatalities rising 34%. In 2016 alone there were approximately 1,560 deaths on Georgia roadways according to the Georgia Department of Transportation, and distracted driving was a significant contributing factor. Preliminary statistics for 2017 place the number of Georgia roadway fatalities at approximately 1,531. As a result of the huge increase in crashes and fatalities, Georgia led the nation in auto insurance premium increases in 2016.

THE LEGAL CONSEQUENCES OF DISTRACTED DRIVING

In many respects, distracted driving is more lethal than drunk driving simply because it is more pervasive and at present, socially acceptable. Additionally, it is rarely punished like drunk driving is: although 46 states and the District of Columbia outlaw texting while driving, most punish the offense with a fine.

A new law, HB 673, was signed into law by Governor Nathan Deal on May 2, 2018. Georgia’s so-called “hands-free” legislation takes effect on July 1, 2018, and requires cell phone use to be hands-free except for specifically enumerated emergencies or for authorized personnel. The new, stricter law will replace Georgia’s former ban on texting and driving which went into effect July 1 2010; from that date until the present, only 1,281 drivers have been convicted of distracted driving compared with 22,500 drivers convicted of drunk driving. The former law handed out a fine of $150 and 1 point on a driver’s record for a first-time offender. The new law will keep that punishment, but significantly increase the consequences for repeat offenders, for whom fines can reach $900, with as many as 4 points on drivers’ records.

MADD REVISITED

Perhaps more effective than any legislation, however, will be society’s decision to stigmatize distracted driving the same way that it ultimately stigmatized drunk driving. Getting drunk drivers off the road was accomplished by tougher laws and a shift in cultural mores, a shift that took years of education and activism. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, played a huge role in raising public awareness of the danger of driving after a “few too many.” Together with an educational campaign, MADD helped America embrace the idea of the “designated driver” and adopt strict punishments for those driving while drunk.

The same must happen with distracted driving; it can no longer be socially acceptable and punished with minimal legal consequences. But the cultural shift toward making distracted driving unacceptable must occur more rapidly than the time it took to change people’s attitudes toward driving under the influence. Too many lives are already being lost and forever altered by devastating crashes. MADD must become Mothers Against Distracted Driving, and America must wake up to the 21st century hazard on its roads.

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