Savvy New Yorker Erica Taylor doesn’t think twice anymore when a cab driver eats lunch or talks on a cell phone while driving her to a destination. But she was alarmed recently when she realized her cabbie was negotiating city traffic while watching TV on a mobile device. “At first I thought it was a GPS, but then he leaned in to turn up the volume.”
Dave Burckhard raced to help when a car driven by a woman talking on a cell phone jumped the curb and ran into a chain-link fence. “The woman opened the door and stepped out while continuing to talk on her phone,” says Burckhard, “I asked her if she was OK and she held up a finger to silence me as if she was speaking with the president of the United States.”
And two years ago, Weida Stoecker’s husband, Chuck, was killed less than two miles from home when hit head-on by a 17 year-old texting driver. Since then, Stoecker has been advocating for national distracted driving laws and, on Facebook, posting the license plate numbers of people she spots texting while driving.
These are just a few of the people who will be watching closely next week when the U.S. Department of Transportation convenes its Distracted Driving Summit in Washington, D.C. And because studies show that texting or talking on a mobile phone creates an impairment level in your brain not unlike driving while intoxicated, they hope you’ll take a sober look at the issue as well.
R U ON BOARD?
During the summit, taking place Sept. 30-Oct. 1,transportation officials, elected officials, safety advocates, law enforcement representatives, academics and people whose lives have been tragically altered by accidents involving distracted drivers, will discuss ways to deal with what many say is a deadly, technological modern-day threat and a growing social health issue.
“As mobile technology evolves at a breakneck pace, more and more people rightly fear that distracted driving — phone calls, e-mails and texting — is a growing threat on the highways,” noted AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety president Peter Kissinger when the organization released results of its 2009 Traffic Safety Culture Index this past July. The survey found that 80 percent of motorists rated distracted driving as a very serious threat to their safety; even though many of those same people admitted to reading or sending text messages or e-mails while driving. “There are many motorists who would never consider drinking and driving, yet they think it‘s somehow OK to text or e-mail while driving,” said Kissinger. “We need to stigmatize distracted driving to the same degree as drunk driving in our culture, because both behaviors are deadly.”
Identifying the problem: not so easy
No one knows for sure how many accidents and deaths have been caused by people who are texting while driving, in part because it’s not something police or emergency responders are required to track. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 80 percent of all accidents are caused by driver inattention. And as we all know, that inattention is increasingly being caused by cell-phone conversations and texting while driving. Confirmed incidents are common enough that 17 states and the District of Columbia have adopted laws banning texting while driving. At least a half-dozen states require the use of hands-free devices. And there’s a push at the federal level to pass legislation that withholds federal highway money from states without a ban on texting.
“And its not just sending a text message,” says Jeff Larson, president of the Massachusetts-based Safe Roads Alliance (SRA). “It’s reading a text message, reading e-mail, surfing the Web, looking at video on your smart phone, looking up a number. Anything you do that requires manipulating a keyboard can cause a distraction.”
Solving the problem
In addition to supporting laws banning texting, many organizations say education is the best way to get drivers to pay attention to the road instead of to their cell phone screens. Those educational efforts include advanced driving classes, peer-to-peer presentations and public service campaigns that include everything from billboards, TV and radio commercials and videos. One especially frightening and bloody texting-accident video, created by a police department in Ghent, Wales, has been making the rounds in schools and on YouTube and has become quite controversial for its very graphic images of death.
Video: Losing a daughter to distracted driving José Balido of Miami doesn’t think laws or educational campaigns will do much good. Remembering how he was nearly killed when a texting driver sailed right through a stop sign, Balido thinks the only solution is technological. He’d like to see “a non-hackable device installed in every car that disables cell phone signals inside.” Such a device doesn’t exist yet, but a few applications with zippy names such as Drivesafe.ly, Vlingo, Zoomsafer and iZup promise to help by doing everything from reading your e-mails out loud to turning off your cell phone when you car is going over a certain speed. Nationwide Insurance is working with a company developing cell-phone-based technology that will tell callers and texters that the person they’re trying to reach is not answering their phone because they are driving. When the technology is ready, the insurance company promises to offer a discount to anyone who signs up for the DriveAssist program.
Tips to deter distraction
Discussion about legislation, education and other strategies to get people to stop using cell phones and texting while driving fill the agenda of the of the upcoming Distracting Driver Summit in D.C., but there are some things you can do to deter driver distraction now.
- Just say no. Do one thing at a time. When you get in the car, turn your phone off. Then, if it rings, blinks, sings or buzzes you won’t be tempted to answer.
- Get out. Frequent New York City cab rider Erica Taylor says if you’re in a cab and feel the driver is too distracted talking on their phone or sending text messages say something or make them pull over and let you out. The same advice applies when you’re riding in the car with friends or family members.
- Make some ground rules. “If you must talk on the phone while you’re driving,” says Jeff Larson of the Safe Roads Alliance, “keep the phone easily accessible so you don’t have to look around for it if it rings. And try to keep your conversation short: don’t talk in heavy traffic or while you’re driving in bad weather. And don’t have an emotional conversation or try to negotiate a complicated business deal. It’s just too dangerous.”
The proceedings of the DOT’s Distracted Driving Summit in Washington will be available via a live Web cast on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. If you have a question for one of the panelists, you’ll be able to submit it on-line. That is, of course, if you’re not driving.
Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, and a columnist for USATODAY.com.You can follow her on Twitter.
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