SCARBOROUGH — The recent tragic increase in pedestrian deaths, which totaled 18 this year, the highest in Maine since 1997 (“Police stumped by large number of pedestrian deaths in Maine,” Dec. 23), is probably attributable to multiple causes.

Reduced visibility doubtlessly accounts for many such accidents, as well as sleep deprivation, substance use and other factors. But driver distraction and inattention may play a larger role than is recognized or acknowledged.

In his recent book “Brain Chains,” neuropsychiatrist Theo Compernolle warns about the high odds of a serious accident befalling anyone attempting to multitask behind the wheel.

The book grew out of a six-year review of all available literature on the subject and contains over 50 pages of references, which support consistent and alarming conclusions. A driver texting in a car, truck, bus or even a forklift is 23 times as likely to be involved in an accident as a driver who is not texting.

If a motorist is traveling 70 mph, in the five seconds that his or her attention is on a small screen instead of the road, his or her car has covered the distance of a football field essentially blind. He or she literally isn’t seeing the highway ahead or anything on it. And even at only 40 mph, this could mean traveling a distance of 20 yards toward an undetected pedestrian or cyclist.

Despite misleading claims for newer software, which automobile manufacturers would have you believe makes driving safer, dealers may not tell you that calling from a hands-free and voice-commanded phone is almost as dangerous as texting, raising the risk of a crash by a factor of four to 10 times compared with normal attentive driving.

Although all experienced drivers often rely on their brain’s reflex, or “automatic pilot” capacity to handle an overlearned routine task such as moving along a familiar route, unusual circumstances can occur at any moment. The “reflecting” brain – the part that consciously thinks and analyzes – must now instantly perceive, assess and react to the presence of a sudden, unexpected hazard. However, as earlier sections of “Brain Chains” explain, this part of the brain cannot simply jump in to save the day if its attention is focused on sending a text or trying to follow complex directions from the car’s GPS.

Virtual friend “Siri” can thus in an instant seductively draw the unwary toward a lethal outcome. Odysseus resisted the Sirens’ call by putting wax in his sailors’ ears and having them tie him to the mast of his ship. An easier solution to today’s electronic temptations is simply to turn them off!

As Compernolle points out, although 60 percent of motorists do believe that electronic distraction by one device or another while driving is very dangerous, many (particularly younger drivers) continue to gamble with their own and others’ safety in this way.

A 2010 AAA report cited in Compernolle’s book concludes: “Young drivers are well informed about distracted driving, but their ‘heroic’ assessment of their own driving and the negative impact distraction has on their abilities undermines their willingness to change their behavior.”

Not surprisingly, roughly a quarter of all car crashes involve cellphone use. The grim result is that “safe” smartphone-owning drivers of any age who mistakenly dismiss the research above, believing they have uniquely superhuman reflexes and attention powers, are killing more people every year than the terrorists did on 9/11.

Police do not yet routinely scrutinize cellphone records as part of accident reconstructions, and it is probable, given human nature, that many texting drivers may not fess up to just what may have been impairing their attention seconds before impact. Overattention to a smartphone while walking along a busy road may also create a significant risk of a pedestrian becoming a victim.

An individual thus preoccupied may miss a turn, overshoot the destination by a block or two, perhaps even walk into an obstacle; at worst, he or she may not see or react to an oncoming vehicle.

During this holiday season, when most of us would readily admit to being distracted a little more than usual, help to keep yourself and everyone else injury-free by banishing the smartphone to the glove compartment or your coat pocket until you reach your destination.