FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- Distracted driving is generally defined as any activity that diverts a person's attention from the primary task of driving. All forms of distracted driving endanger the driver, passenger, and any bystander's safety, but because text messaging requires visual, manual, and cognitive attention from the driver, it is arguably the most alarming distraction.

Department of Transportation estimates suggest that distracted driving contributes to 16% of all fatal crashes, leading to approximately 5,000 deaths every year.

Of all drivers 15 to 19 years old, 10% involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crashes. This age group has the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted at the time of the crashes.--National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"Studies have shown that the reaction time of a distracted driver (i.e. multitasking behind the wheel) to react to an emergency situation, compared to a driver who is legally intoxicated (0.08% BAC), is actually 35% slower than the intoxicated driver," said Powell Parks, U.S. Army Special Operations Command Safety Director. "Both habits are dangerous; however, while statistics show that drunk driving is on the decline, it is estimated that 25% of the vehicles on the road has a driver who is driving distracted."

These types of incidents are on the rise and are not isolated to any specific demographic. Military service members and Department of Defense civilians have had their own experiences with distracted driving, and while some may be as minor as fender-benders, others have experienced more drastic long-lasting damages to this terrible habit.

One USASOC employee knows firsthand the consequences of distracted driving. In 2012, Mark Tate lost his wife, Sharon, when she was killed by a distracted tractor trailer truck in Southwest Virginia. Court documents proved the driver was traveling over the posted speed limit, but because he was distracted did not see the stopped traffic due to construction and began braking when it was already too late.

"He overcorrected at the last minute and jackknifed, pushing my wife's SUV (Sport Utility Vehicle) under the rear end of another flat-bed tractor trailer," Tate said. "The flat-bed took the top off of the SUV and caused 116 blunt-force traumas to my wife, who was killed instantly."

"The accident occurred before Virginia enacted laws against distracted drivers and set separate punishments for them. The state did not have a process established to investigate cell phone usage prior to an incident," Tate said. "He was instead, charged with felony reckless driving and received a nine-month prison sentence and loss of his license for a year."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, "at 55 mph, the average text takes your eyes off the road long enough to cover a football field."

Despite often having the same tragic consequences as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, many states do not treat it equally. Instead they have separate (less severe) penalties for the infraction, such as labeling it a "traffic violation" rather than "involuntary manslaughter," which can be the difference between probation and fines, months, or years of jail-time.

Tate also explains how this tragedy has impacted his life and the changes he would like to see take place so that tragedies like this can be avoided.

"My wife's death has affected the way I look at people who drive while on their phones. I want to scream to them that what they are doing is wrong," Tate said.
"I would like to see stricter laws on the use of phones while driving, and police enforcing it more actively," Tate added. "Is that phone call or text worth somebody's life?"

Tate's experience is unfortunately not the only one with such drastic outcomes, in December of 2013, a Wisconsin mother driving with her 11-year-old daughter and two five-year-old nieces in her car, had her life changed forever, at the hands of a distracted driver. The distracted driver was on her cell phone when she crossed over the centerline and hit the vehicle head-on, killing the three young children.

These are just a couple examples, out of thousands of incidents occurring in the U.S. every year, where somebody's life is permanently and drastically altered by the carelessness of those who couldn't wait.
"DON'T DO IT!!! If you have to make a cell phone call, send a text, discipline your kids, or whatever, pull your car off the road. Drive defensibly and be aware of other driver's actions behind the wheel," Parks exclaimed. "If you observe another driver that is obviously driving distracted give them some extra space and be prepared for any erratic maneuvers such as late braking or sudden lane changes. Don't be a passive passenger in a car with a distracted driver; speak up and say something."

For the Army, AR (Army Regulation) 385-1, The Army Safety Program, prohibits all vehicle operators on DOD installations and operators of government-owned vehicles (GSA and military) on or off the installation, from using cell phones or other hand-held electronic devices, unless the vehicle is safely parked or they are using a hands-free device, Parks said.

"Personnel should discipline themselves to become focused drivers, and not trying to accomplish other tasks besides the primary task of driving safely," Parks said. "If you are a driver that routinely talks on a cell phone while driving, make the effort to break the habit; you and everyone around you will be safer for it. Set the standard that others should follow, especially for your teenagers that that are preparing to get their driver's licenses."