Distracted driving isn't new, I think it started in the 50's and has gotten worse as we try to do more things in our cars. Things NOT related to driving.
You've seen it, the guy trying to shave during his commute, the person applying makeup or eating a sandwich while drinking their caramel soy latte. And more recently we've seen texting while driving, checking the laptop, talking on the phone, reading e-books (probably safer than reading a newspaper.) It's impossible to be doing these things and be driving responsibly at the same time. With so many versions of distracted driving what's often overlooked is the one simple, common thread to it all.
They can do all those things while "driving" down the road because we made it possible for them to do so. Follow me down the path that leads to this.
In the first days of automotive design things were primitive. It took a huge effort to hang on and keep a car pointed down the road. To make cars more attractive to the masses many attempts were made to reduce the effort needed to drive. Power-assists for steering were made as early as 1896 and later efforts by Pierce-Arrow's truck division (who knew P-A made trucks?) in 1926. It was way too expensive to produce and offer on passenger vehicles but found its way onto armored vehicles and heavy equipment during World War II.
Steering a pre-war car wasn't the easiest task. Front suspension geometry and steering racks required effort. Steering wheels were huge to offer greater leverage ("Necker" knobs were invented.) And steering components that didn't always keep you pointed straight down the road made it worse. Driving required constant attention. As parts got better the effort and wear rate got better. But the final part of the solution was Hydraguide (TM), a power steering system based on patents owned by Francis Davis, the engineer for Pierce-Arrow and later General Motors (and eventually Bendix).
Chrysler offered Hydraguide on the 1951 Imperial, their upscale luxury car. General Motors quickly followed up, introducing it to the Cadillac line. Then through the 50's power steering was rolled out to lesser vehicles as optional equipment. In the 60's p.s. was improved and offered on most all cars sold. Ford even tried a "wrist-twist" with two small wheels while Pontiac experimented with variable-ratio steering. Massive steering wheels shrank to half their size, the extra leverage no longer needed.
The reduction in effort to steer a car opened up driving to many that might have found it difficult (like your 90 year old great aunt - the one with the cats.) I've even seen a station wagon driver and family having an heated argument in sign language while driving (this image haunts me to this day.)
Freed from needing to use your hands to steer we can now relegate that task to our knees or a pinkie we don't need to hold that chicken nugget (dipping sauce in the other hand.) We can "multitask" in our car. No one needs to actually concentrate on making sure the car is going where we want it (soon we'll have apps for that.) All of this freedom because Chrysler brought power steering to the masses.
Simply put distracted driving exists as a result of how easy we made it to drive. Unfortunately many disconnect from the act of driving almost as soon as they enter their vehicle. And those who are paying attention relinquish it as soon as their phone rings. It's just too easy.