Driving While Distracted: The Latter-Day DUI?

NTSA distracted driving by the numbers coverThe US Transportation Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued guidelines concerning electronic devices [pdf] to car manufacturers in order to minimize the use of attention-sapping gadgets and other in-cabin causes of motorist distraction. Backed by a new study (and data helpfully packaged as an inaugural Safety in Numbers newsletter), the guidelines are voluntary but nevertheless mark another step by DOT Secretary Ray LaHood to increase road safety on US roadways.

The guidelines recommend that drivers not take more than two seconds at a time to attend to a task and never as much as twelve seconds total per task. That could mean disabling text entry for messaging & surfing while in motion and also disabling video functions like entertainment and conferencing. (Duh.)

But with the increased prevalence of smartphones (not to mention ever more interactive dashboard displays) it’s not at all clear that voluntary guidelines will be enough.

The numbers tell the story. One quarter of US drivers cop to placing calls regularly while they drive, and more than half say they answer incoming calls. One in seven admits to messaging while driving despite widespread public condemnation and even laws against the practice. As many as 95% of those surveyed favor outlawing texting behind the wheel. These findings suggest that distracted driving is an acknowledged problem – indeed it is an even bigger problem for those on two wheels without protection who must share our busy roads with distracted drivers.

Cell phone citations in Beverly Hills chart 2012
Does the number of cell phone offenders on Beverly Hills streets really exhibit this kind of a marked decline?

Can’t we sanction these scofflaws? Though California passed a law banning conversations and texting on handheld devices while driving, enforcement is simply not keeping up. We recently looked at enforcement data for 2012 in Beverly Hills to learn that proxy measures for road-borne negligence (red light tickets and collisions) hold steady while the number of citations for talking on handhelds plunges from January to December.

Given the evident prevalence of the practice despite the law, we conclude that 1) even at their peak numbers these citations under-represent the problem; and 2) the steady decline through the year suggests waning interest by law enforcement in the problem. Why is it important? Studies are beginning to measure the outsize effect of distractions on cognition while driving (even with hands-free operation) and researchers are beginning to conclude that the cognitive cost comes at a high public safety price. Even the Centers for Disease Control weighed in with their own study in their Morbidity and Mortality series. (We reported on it last month.)

The Guidelines

Aside from guidelines to manufacturers, NTSA makes some common-sense recommendations to minimize the incidence of distracted driving: turn off devices or stow them while driving; mandate that commercial drivers not talk or text while on the job; and of course get the word out that distracted driving can kill. (Fun fact: it’s not legal to talk on a handheld phone and operate a bicycle in California either.)

NTSA Wreck it All logoPerhaps even the NTSA’s new catchphrase, “One text or call could wreck it all” will find a place in our consciousness along with the proven winner, “click-it-or-ticket.” But with our need to communicate so deep-seated and our community models (like police) talking on a handhelds while they drive too, what’s the hope for changing our behavior absent real sanctions?

We’re not hopeful. Once cyclists only had to worry about drivers unfamiliar with bikes-on-roads or even hostile to sharing the road at all. We also have to keep an eye out for drunk drivers (especially at night and around the holidays). Now to those concerns¬†¬†we add distracted drivers? We already intuitively know that to avoid bad drivers we have to ride defensively, but distractions put a whole new category of safety challenge in our way.

Federal agencies like US DOT and CDC must step up to publicize the hazard and coordinate a media campaign around it. But that won’t solve this problem. Pervasive laws (they vary state-by-state) and better enforcement would help, but most critically, only agreement among auto insurers about liability and sanctions will get us safer streets in this regard.

We eagerly await the US DOT’s next step, and hope that Sacramento legislators are listening. We know that the State’s Insurance Commissioner hasn’t yet tuned in because the single reference to the issue came mid-last year in a press release about a teen driver killed by a distracted driver. Since, not a word about the problem here in California where nearly 24 million licensed drivers ply the roads.

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