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Leading the Fight Against Distracted Driving

Traffic Safety School offers training to guard against growing risks of multitasking on road

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October 5, 2011 | by Stephen Anzaldi
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Driving and texting definitely don’t mix.

Yet distracted driving -- or multitasking while driving -- is one of the most common driving violations today, according to Mary Clark, director of the Northwestern University Traffic Safety School.

Renowned for its defensive driving instruction, the Traffic Safety School targets those who’ve received a traffic ticket or require certification for employment or insurance purposes. It has served more than six million students in Illinois and Wisconsin since its creation in 1988.

In recent years, the Traffic Safety School has updated its curriculum to highlight the dangers of distraction. Courses now are based on the Illinois Rules of the Road rather than the previous model developed by the National Safety Council.

“The training emphasizes driver behavior and the mindset a person brings to the car, but it's difficult to change habits when it comes to talking on the cell phone and texting,” Clark said. “We see it all the time. People are running late, they jump in the car and they’re trying to do two or three things at once.”

Distracted driving means taking your eyes off the road, taking your hands off the steering wheel or taking your mind off what you’re doing. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports 20 percent of injury crashes in 2009 involved distraction, which can slow reaction time to the same extent as intoxication.

Most people, Clark said, consider themselves safe and responsible, but drivers need to be mindful on the road at all time.

“You might be in complete control of your vehicle,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean your fellow driver – the one looking down at their phone – is in control of theirs.”

Partnering with the Community

Northwestern and the City of Evanston share a long history working together for traffic safety. The relationship dates back to 1936 when Northwestern established the Traffic Safety Institute with Franklin Kreml as founding director. Kreml was both a Northwestern student and Evanston police officer at the time.

The institute, which houses the Traffic Safety School, changed its name in 2000 to the Center for Public Safety.

Most recently, after Evanston passed an ordinance in 2010 making it illegal to use a hand-held device while driving, Northwestern and Evanston collaborated on a distracted driving summit at Evanston Township High School. The summit included Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White and explored issues of cognitive impairment, the dangers of multi-tasking and law enforcement policies.