The Danger of Using Smartphones at Red Lights

The Danger of Using Smartphones at Red Lights

The Danger of Using Smartphones at Red Lights

There is no disputing the dangers of drivers using smartphones while stopped at red lights.

Andy Pilgrim started the Traffic Safety Education Foundation in 2008. He is a professional race driver and a contributing writer/vehicle tester to Automobile Magazine.

“I don’t text and drive, I only mess with my phone at red lights.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard adult drivers tell me this, I would have a lot of dollars.

Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling we sense while doing something we know is probably wrong or dangerous, but are trying to convince ourselves we have a good reason for doing it. Everything involving smartphones and distracted driving should cause cognitive dissonance. But that seems to be lacking in most distracted drivers.

Some states now have primary distracted driving laws, making the use of a smartphone while stopped at a traffic light illegal; this is a good thing. Unfortunately, research shows these laws are all but ignored by habitual distracted drivers, but they do have some positive effects on the more occasional distracted driver. Another issue with anti-texting/anti-phone manipulation laws is the enforcement. Police officers all over the U.S. tell me how difficult it is to enforce these laws—in terms of manpower and obtaining a conviction—even when they are primary offenses.

My article last month addressed the now familiar problem of cars not moving when a traffic light turns green. This is because many drivers have their eyes and mind tuned into their smartphone instead of driving. I also pointed out how this thoughtless and extremely inconsiderate driving behavior can be a catalyst for road rage incidents.

I always advise parents and driving students to resist using their smartphone while stopped at red lights; not only because it can make them the focus of an aggressive driver but because it leaves them extremely vulnerable.

There is no disputing the dangers of drivers using smartphones while stopped at red lights. Rear end impacts are one of the fastest growing areas of traffic collisions. This article focuses on how smartphones are playing a growing role in rear end impacts at traffic light intersections.

Here is a common scenario: A driver hears an alert on their smartphone, but doesn’t touch the phone while the car is in motion. They eagerly anticipate the moment they can see the message. They grab the phone a split second before they are stopped; they can’t wait to look.

Here’s the danger: instead of glancing in their rear view mirror as they slowed down, to “see” and make sure vehicles behind were also slowing, our distracted driver was fixating on the car in front of them, almost desperate for their own car to be stationary so they could look at their phone. As soon as they are stopped, the distracted driver starts manipulating their phone. Suddenly, bang! They are rear ended by a vehicle behind them. They had never once checked their mirrors as they slowed for the red light and this had left them completely vulnerable.

I never look at my phone while driving—not because of any law—but because looking at, talking to or manipulating a smartphone while driving (whether the car is stationary or not), makes about as much sense to me as jumping out of an airplane with no parachute.

Here’s my technique when approaching any traffic light intersection. Analyzing the road far ahead as I drive is second nature for me. I always know in advance where my “safety out” is, before getting close to a traffic light intersection. In this scenario, the “safety out” is a place to maneuver my car, if I am in any danger of being rear ended by the vehicle behind me.

My “out” could be a turn lane on the left or the right, a hard shoulder, or another lane in my direction. If there is heavy traffic and my left/right options are limited, I leave extra room between my car and the car in front of me. This extra room allows for more gentle braking, giving the distracted driver behind me more time to look up/wake up. It also adds more time and distance for left/right options to open up.

Have you ever heard someone say, “I got rear ended at a red light; there was nothing I could do,”? I’m sure we’ve all heard it. I have needed to use my “safety out” in order to avoid being rear ended numerous times in the last 20 years. A couple of these incidents could have been massive crashes had I not avoided them. So far in my 40 year street driving career, I have managed to avoid all rear end collisions.

Rear end collisions are another clear example of “Dangerous and Vulnerable”. The distracted driver behind is the “Dangerous” one and the person grabbing their smartphone as soon as they come to a stop has made themselves the “Vulnerable” one. Is it fair we have to be this vigilant, watching for distracted drivers all over? Of course not, but drivers who are can avoid most of these needless crashes.

We have more dangerous and vulnerable distracted drivers on our roads than ever before. We all have to “know” every driver in front of us, coming towards us, at the side of us and behind us and assume they are distracted. This type of thinking is the best way I know to survive the current situation we have on our roads.

Good luck out there, everyone.


GM Foundation