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Should doctors warn patients of distracted driving?

Similar to discouraging the use of tobacco or alcohol, doctors should warn patients about the dangers of using a cell phone while driving.  That is the conclusion published in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine by Dr. Amy Ship of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School.  “Although it is difficult to assess the absolute increase in the risk of collision attributable to driver distraction, one study showed that talking on a cell phone while driving posed a risk four times that faced by undistracted drivers and on a par with that of driving while intoxicated,” says Dr. Ship.

Studies show that over 80% of Americans use a cell phone while driving.  That number includes sending text messages from behind the wheel.  Texting increases by 23 times the risk of collision.  Almost 30% of all crashes in the United States are related to cell phone usage.

These are serious numbers that show beyond a doubt the causation of distracted driving.  But is it a medical matter?

Researchers have shown that using cell phones while driving — regardless of by hand or remotely — “disrupts performance by diverting attention to an engaging cognitive context other than the one immediately associated with driving,” according to a report published in Psychological Science. Dr. Ship adds that while driving “we are unable to multitask and that neurons are diverted differently depending on” the task.

Reuters reports that on Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation approved the Distracted Driving Prevention Act, which would provide incentives to states with distracted driving regulations. “It’s a proven fact that distracted driving causes thousands of deaths and injuries every year,” said New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, who co-sponsored the legislation. The bill would offer federal grants to states that have restrictions on cellphone use and texting, and would require the Secretary of Transportation to issue regulations on the use of wireless devices by commercial vehicle drivers.

So studies published in medical journals and Congress all agree that distracted driving is bad.  But should the physician be responsible for discouraging such behavior?  Dr. Ship says that “when a doctor raises an issue while providing overall preventive care, the message is different from that conveyed by a public service announcement nestled between ads for chips and beer or a printed warning on a product box.”  She suggests that during a routine exam “our questions must be updated in keeping with the risks: it’s time for us to ask patients about driving and distraction.”

If this becomes the responsibility of the physician, how long will it take for an enterprising attorney to blame the doctor for a client’s cell phone related crash?


  1. Sam
    I agree that doctors can if they choose to do so talk to patients about the dangers of cell phones and driving however, it has been my experience that the doctor I had been going to is so booked up and has to see so many patients a day that they barely have time to do a proper physical exam. As far as the law goes we have a law in place for not texting while driving and unfortunately this weekend I saw at least 5 people driving and texting. People need to learn to think about what they are doing when they get into that vehicle it is not a toy that you can just crash and go to the store to buy a new one the consequences are much more serious.


  2. If a doctor feels compelled to talk to their patients about the dangers of distracted driving they should be free to do so without the threat of legal obligation. Doctors give advice to their patients regarding their smoking habits, but you’d be hard pressed to find a case in which a doctor is then blamed for a patient’s lung cancer. If any legal blame would fall in a distracted driving accident, you’d sooner find it placed on a car manufacturer or mobile carrier.

    Distracted driving has become a major medical concern. It contributes to nearly 6,000 deaths annually. The battle against this destructive behavior must be fought in 3 different ways: legislatively, technologically and educationally. More and more states are passing laws against texting while driving. Mobile applications offer opportunities for suppression and management of one’s driving behaviors. Having doctors stand up and educate their patients can only lead to fewer deaths and safer roads for all of us.

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