Distracted Driving Summit: What to do about texting-while-driving?

Distracted Driving Summit eyes personal behavior; AAA sees a 'public health crisis'

Technology and new laws may have a role in curbing dangerous vehicle accidents caused by distracted driving while texting or using a cell phone or a music player. But federal officials today also put a major focus on driver responsibility.

At the kick-off of a two-day Distracted Driving Summit in Washington, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that new laws or better police enforcement can't on their own end distracted driving. "You can't legislate behavior," LaHood said. "Taking personal responsibility for our actions [while driving] is the key."

At the conclusion of the summit tomorrow, LaHood plans to announce steps his department is taking to combat the problem of accidents caused by distracted driving. In addition to cell phones, GPS devices or music players such as iPods, electronic billboards beside the road are also seen as a distraction for drivers.

New research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that nearly 6,000 people died in vehicle crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver in 2008, LaHood said, about one-sixth of the 37,000 vehicle deaths reported last year. About half a million people were injured in distracted driving crashes, he said, adding that on any given day in 2008, more than 800,000 vehicles were driven by someone using a handheld cell phone.

To date, he noted, some 200 bills addressing distracted driving have been submitted to legislatures in 46 states.

However, experts on the first of several panels at the summit said distracted driving is a complex issue, noting that police officers often vary in how they report distracted driving. Quite often, police at crash scenes must rely on what drivers say they were doing just before a crash, and with a greater focus on the dangers of texting while driving, many drivers may not admit they were texting at the time, they noted.

"Drivers are less likely to admit distraction," said John Lee, a professor in industrial and systems engineering at University of Wisconsin in Madison. "Unlike alcohol that leaves a trace, there's no evidence."

As such, it's hard to quantify the number of crashes caused by distractions.

Lee pointed to evolving technology called "guide collision warning systems" that could help drivers "expand their field of view" to limit the impact of distractions. Those collision warning systems, now showing up in some expensive passenger vehicles, can give a drivers feedback if they're driving too close or facing another imminent danger. He said that such technology could also be used later to help a driver review when he was close to an accident at the end of a trip to help avoid similar situations in the future.

Warning technology is more promising than existing systems, which can detect when a car is in motion and shut down a cell phone or send all calls to voicemail, Lee said.

Indeed, texting while driving is the worst of the current crop of distractions, Lee said. "Texting [while driving] is the perfect storm that brings together visual, manual and cognitive demands," he said. By comparison, there is still a mental distraction when talking on the phone, even hands-free. However, the risks associated with texting are roughly 15 times greater than when talking on a cell phone while driving, he said. That's based on the amount of time a driver looks away from the road or is actively texting.

Still, he warned that "hands-free is not risk-free" because a driver's attention is diminished while dialing a call, even with a hands-free phone. "Dialing is dangerous," Lee noted.

The summit created a flurry of public relations activity for cellular carriers who have committed to public safety campaigns, with at least one, Verizon Wireless, favoring a bill before the U.S. Senate that requires states to ban texting or face the loss of highway funds.

Late yesterday, the CTIA, which represents all of the major carriers and phone manufacturers, joined with the National Safety Council to launch a joint campaign to inform parents and teens about the dangers of distracted driving. The motto of the public service announcements they will produce is, "On the Road, Off the Phone."

The CTIA said there are 270 million wireless subscribers in the U.S. and it called texting "incompatible with safe driving." However, the group did not take a strong stance in favor of more laws in an advance statement by CTIA CEO Steve Largent. In that statement, Largent said "education is essential to trying to end distracted driving."

However, Kristin Backstrom, senior manager of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, said it isn't clear how to reduce distracted driving. Focusing on younger drivers does not address the fact that middle-aged and elderly drivers also text and talk on cell phones while driving, based on surveys AAA has done.

"The problem [of distracted driving] is not limited to young drivers and goes all the way up the age spectrum," she said. "This a really hard problem to be solved and can't be solved with anything we do in driver's ed classes. It's a public health crisis."

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