Robert F. Bukaty/AP
A driver uses a cell phone, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2009, in Freeport, Maine. On Saturday, Sept. 12, a new law makes failure to maintain control of a motor vehicle while distracted a traffic infraction in Maine.
A driver uses a cell phone, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2009, in Freeport, Maine. On Saturday, Sept. 12, a new law makes failure to maintain control of a motor vehicle while distracted a traffic infraction in Maine. Robert F. Bukaty/AP
The research is in — and it's been in for a while: The nation's addiction to constant communication has led to a crisis on its roads, where behind-the-wheel texters and cell phone chatters have become the new drunk drivers.
Today in Washington, the deepening safety problem of the distracted driver will be tackled in a two-day summit called by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
"This is not dissimilar to solving the problem of drunk driving," LaHood said in an interview with NPR airing Wednesday on Morning Edition. "Public awareness is not at the level that it should be. Hopefully, our summit begins that process."
Participants are scheduled to review research on the risks of distracted driving — and a continuing debate over whether hands-free and voice-activated cell phones belong in the category of too dangerous to use.
They are also expected to examine how legislation, public education, enforcement — and perhaps even technology — can be used to ease technology-driven dangers on the road.
The unprecedented attention has been driven largely by the explosion of text messaging, including among teens who will be hitting the road in coming years.
Safety concerns were highlighted by highly publicized public transit accidents caused by distracted operators, including one in California that resulted in the deaths of 25 people and one in Boston that injured 62. Both operators were texting. And this summer, a Welsh public service video that graphically dramatized the dangers of texting while driving went viral on the Web.
Eighteen states and the nation's capital now have laws that ban sending or receiving text messages while driving. Six states and the District of Columbia prohibit all drivers from talking on hand-held cell phones; 21 states and D.C. bar novice drivers from all cell phone use. Proposed national legislation would reduce federal highway funds to states that fail to ban text messaging while driving.
The head of the National Transportation Safety Board has barred employee cell phone use in government cars. More than 500 companies across the nation have imposed similar total-ban policies, says the National Safety Council's Dave Teater.
Teater became an activist after his 12-year-old son was killed when the family car was hit by a vehicle driven by a woman who ran a red light while using a cell phone. He is among those agitating for continued attention to the dangers of cell phone use in the face of the current flurry of activity around text-messaging dangers.
"Let's address the very immediate threat of texting, but not lose focus on the bigger current danger: the huge prevalence of cell phone use and the distraction caused by those conversations," Teater said.
I'm Not The Problem
But even with legislators taking action, the most stubborn challenge remains drivers' inflated perception of their skills behind the wheel, and their personal threshold for risk.
"Drivers always think they are not the problem," says Bill Horrey, a research scientist with the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety.
"Research here and other places shows that people are very poorly calibrated to their own level of performance, and historically, drivers have always exhibited overconfidence in their skills," Horrey says.
The "I'm not the problem" mentality is one experts hope to tackle with public education campaigns. One hopeful sign, they say: Ninety percent of people surveyed in a recent New York Times poll said they believe that it should be against the law to receive and send text messages while driving.
"Most people know that it's a dangerous thing to do, but there's a disconnect," says Arthur Goodwin, a senior research associate at the University of North Carolina's Highway Safety Research Center.
"They think they can do it safely this one time," he says. "It's one of the major challenges."
Goodwin points to studies in New York City and Washington that show hand-held cell phone use while driving initially plummeted after those cities passed bans and imposed fines. But they quickly returned to pre-ban levels some months later, when enforcement most likely lessened.
Though states have been adopting anti-texting legislation in rapid succession, it's been a tougher road in places like Arizona.
There, the state's top highway safety official characterized an anti-texting bill as another step toward a "nanny state," and legislative efforts have died in committee. Bans on cell phone use have expired even more quickly.
Arizona Democratic State Rep. Steve Farley, who will speak at LaHood's summit, says that opposition has come from legislators ideologically opposed to what they see as an expansion of government, although most are strong advocates of drunken driving laws and penalties.
"In places like Arizona, some people see this as a battle between government and personal rights," says Farley, who was the first legislator in the country to introduce a bill that would ban texting while driving.
Pushback is also coming from the American Trucking Associations. In a statement, its president says that the group supports LaHood's efforts to eliminate distracted driving, but it will defend its members' use of onboard computer-type screens and keyboards that truckers use to check and respond to messages from their offices.
What Research Shows
The ATA's position may be difficult to defend, given the results of a new study by Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute.
In what researchers refer to as a "naturalistic" driving study — one that tracks the behavior of actual drivers, rather than testing reaction time in a lab — experts there found that truck drivers increased their risk of crashing 23.2 times while text messaging.
Text messaging in cars or trucks resulted in drivers taking their eyes off the road for longer periods of time than cell phone users, the study found. The researchers likened it to a "driver traveling the length of a football field at 55 miles per hour without looking at the roadway."
Texting, they concluded, "should be banned in moving vehicles for all drivers."
But their study also came up with what is bound to be a topic of conversation and controversy at the summit: Laboratory-based studies have "greatly exaggerated" the danger of cell phone use by equating it with the dangers of drunk driving. The bottom line in terms of risk, they said, is the amount of time that a driver takes his or her eyes off the road.
Even Farley of Arizona said that the "jury is still out on hands-free" cell phone use while driving.
The Road Forward
Legislators can pass bills, and researchers can pump out startling statistics.
Emerging technologies focus on reducing the prevalence of distracted drivers. These include cell phones that automatically shut down when a user is driving, rerouting non-emergency callers to the owner's voicemail. There's also smart car technology that will emit an audible warning when it detects that the driver's eyes have been off the road for too long.
But even LaHood points to the difficulty of convincing members of a driving public that their behavior is endangering themselves and others.
"Everyone knows what .08 means," LaHood told NPR, referring to the blood alcohol level at which a driver is considered drunk. "But it took us 10 years to get to that point."
He said it will also take a while to raise public awareness of the dangers of texting and driving — "the idea that it's not just you the individual, it's the people around you who could be hurt or injured as a result of your foolishly thinking that you can drive safely and text at the same time."
"You simply cannot do it," he said. "It's not possible."