For this column, let’s delve into what’s been happening with and talk about some updates on road safety, distracted driving, and how autonomous vehicles fit into this equation.

As regular readers you all know every year in April, I use this blog to tackle a huge topic—distracted driving. April has been designated “Distracted Driving Awareness Month” by the National Safety Council, and, unfortunately, the need for this sort of education and outreach just keeps growing.

According to the WHO (World Health Organization), more than 1.25 million people’s lives are cut short every single year because of a road traffic accident. On top of that horrifying , globally, up to 50 million more people suffer non-fatal injuries as a result of a road traffic crash.

Among people who are between the ages of 15 and 29-years-old, road traffic injuries are actually the leading cause of death. The WHO says nearly half of the people dying on the ’s roads are “vulnerable road users” like pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists. And, as if the loss of life isn’t enough, WHO estimates that road traffic crashes cost most countries around 3% of their gross domestic product.

In other words, road safety is a huge global issue that we need to constantly be addressing, because it’s costly in every sense of the word. There are many different people end up in traffic accidents, but one of the most preventable is distracted driving.

Drivers who are texting, talking, tweeting, browsing, or manipulating their mobile phones in any way are about four times more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers who are not using a mobile phone. The cognitive load when using mobile —even in a hands-free manner—is enough to dangerously slow a person’s reaction time. A slower reaction time can be deadly.

Even if you think you’re an exception to this rule—maybe you believe your reaction times are quicker than the average person—let me set the record straight. If you’ve successfully sent text messages while driving before, or maybe you’re accustomed to talking on the phone while driving, then you’re not better than everyone else, you’ve just been lucky. Your luck will run out, and when it does, you could hurt someone.

Distracted drivers killed 3,477 people on America’s roads in 2015 alone, according to the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.). And, also that year, 391,000 more people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers.

So what exactly can we do about this problem? The same technology that is creating so much value for us as individuals and as businesses isn’t doing us any favors when it’s used during a task like driving that requires our full and complete attention. However, the elephant in the room nowadays when we talk about distracted driving is autonomous vehicle technology.

Analysis from IHS Markit suggests 51,000 autonomous vehicles will be sold globally in 2021, and more than 33 million units will be sold in 2040. Is there a solution to our distracted-driving problem on the horizon?

We might believe that are our efforts to curb distracted driving are just temporary solutions that won’t be needed once cars drive themselves? We may be tempted to say yes and look the other way. But roadways full of autonomous vehicles are decades away. We can’t just sit back and believe there will be a day when human drivers are on their way out, anyway. Before we reach an era ruled by fully autonomous vehicles, there will be plenty of years where semi-autonomous vehicles share the road with human drivers.

In the near-term, human drivers are supposed to work in conjunction with autonomous vehicles by acting like a fail-safe in the event a vehicle starts to make a bad decision. Let’s set the record straight. The fact is this will mean that we still can’t be distracted, even when we’re not technically driving.

Take the recent example of the Uber vehicle in Tempe, Ariz., that struck and killed a pedestrian while operating autonomously. It is clearly devastating for the family of the victim.

But it is also raising all kinds of new questions now. In fact, what we need to be thinking about is whether or not the backup driver was distracted at the time of the incident.

If you look at the video Tempe have released of the vehicle interior leading up to the accident, the backup driver appears to be looking down for several seconds prior to the impact. I’m not here to fan the flames of controversy, but if that driver was distracted at the moment the autonomous vehicle hit a pedestrian, could the accident have been prevented?

Here’s the bottomline: The NHTSA says during daylight hours, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cellphones while driving, and this creates enormous potential for accidents that can ruin people’s lives … or end them.

Distracted driving is a problem we need to address now. It’s also going to be a problem for a long time. The problem may look a little bit different as autonomous vehicles become more prominent on our roadways, but it’s not going away any time soon. There is much more to cover on distracted driving and next week we will look even further into what is happening and address what more we need to consider to keep our roads just a little safer.

Want to tweet about this article? Use hashtags #distracteddriving #distraction #automotive #M2M # #autonomous #NationalSafetyCouncil #tweeting #NHTSA

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