We announced some exciting news at Greenough today – we’ve been selected as the PR agency of record for the Arbella Insurance Group. Our major focus so far has been the Arbella Insurance Group Charitable Foundation’s groundbreaking Distractology 101 program, which educates new drivers on the dangers of distraction at the wheel. The centerpiece of the effort is a mobile classroom created to change the driving behaviors through real-life driving scenarios demonstrated in the company’s state-of-the art simulators. Arbella CEO John Donohue felt strongly that something needed to be done to stop the epidemic of distracted driving. And it is an epidemic – more than 6,000 people are killed each year in accidents involving multi-tasking at the wheel. That’s a shocking number.

I’ve had the privilege of working with the Arbella team on the Distractology 101 program and can tell you it’s definitely been an eye-opening experience. I’ll reluctantly admit that before getting on board with the program, I’d been known to read or send a text or two while behind the wheel. Not anymore. What I’ve learned has surprised me. Sure, we all know that looking away from the road and at the cell phone in your hand is dangerous – but most of us think we’re safe as long as we’re using a hands free device, right? Not necessarily so. According to a study done by the University of Utah, there is little or no documented difference between the risks associated with handheld and hands-free devices. Researchers found that the distraction actually comes from the conversation, not holding the phone. Even more surprising? The study also found that using a cell phone will driving, whether hands-free or handheld, delays a driver’s reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent. And all of us are paying the price for this deadly multi-tasking: the annual cost of crashes caused by cell phone use is estimated at more than $43 billion, according to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

So how do we stop the madness? One answer, certainly, is legislation. Seven states have banned driving while talking on a handheld cell phone. 22 other states, including Massachusetts, have enacted legislation that bans text messaging while driving. But the fact is, as with drunk driving, laws just aren’t enough. As Donohue says, it’s about changing behaviors – not just with teens, with all of us. I realize now that every time I pick up the phone while I’m at the wheel, I’m sending a message to my kids in the backseat that it’s ok to multi-task while driving. It’s not ok. We’re all so used to the immediacy of communication these days and sometimes we have to force ourselves to step back and unplug for a bit, especially when we’re behind the steering wheel. Believe it or not, the world will wait.

-Contributed by Amy Erickson. Follow her @amyerickson.