Over the last few days, the New York Times has provided extensive coverage on the issue of driving while talking on a cell phone (hands-on or hands-free) and texting (Matt Richtel is the author of the thorough reporting on this issue, particularly last Sunday but today also).
Last Sunday’s report featured the following information…
A 2003 Harvard study estimated that cell phone distractions caused 2,600 traffic deaths every year, and 330,000 accidents that result in moderate or severe injuries.
Yet Americans have largely ignored that research. Instead, they increasingly use phones, navigation devices and even laptops to turn their cars into mobile offices, chat rooms and entertainment centers, making roads more dangerous.
A disconnect between perception and reality worsens the problem. New studies show that drivers overestimate their own ability to safely multitask, even as they worry about the dangers of others doing it.
Device makers and auto companies acknowledge the risks of multitasking behind the wheel, but they aggressively develop and market gadgets that cause distractions.
Police in almost half of all states make no attempt to gather data on the problem. They are not required to ask drivers who cause accidents whether they were distracted by a phone or other device. Even when officers do ask, some drivers are not forthcoming.
The federal government warns against talking on a cell phone while driving, but no state legislature has banned it. This year, state legislators introduced about 170 bills to address distracted driving, but passed fewer than 10.
Five states and the District of Columbia require drivers who talk on cell phones to use hands-free devices, but research shows that using headsets can be as dangerous as holding a phone because the conversation distracts drivers from focusing on the road.
Oh, and as noted here (and as Richtel tells us today), the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration recommended in 2002 and 2003 that cell phones not be used except in emergencies. However, as the story tells us, “that recommendation was kept from the public, partly over worries that members of Congress and other public officials would consider the proposal a move by the NHTSA that ‘crossed the line into lobbying,’” The New York Times reported, according to MSNBC (as noted here, the NHTSA administrator at the time was Dr. Jeffrey Runge).
(Bushco, working to screw you over, as always – even though they’re gone, their wretched legacy lives on).
The Times’ Sunday story began with the tale of Christopher Hill, a good driver and a good person by all appearances who experienced a horrendous lapse in judgment when talking on a cell phone; he ran a red light in his Ford Ranger pickup truck and didn’t notice Linda Doyle, a driver in a small sport utility vehicle, until the last second. As the story tells us, Hill hit her going 45 miles per hour (and) she was pronounced dead shortly after the accident.
The story also tells us that David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah and a leading researcher in the field of distracted driving, said “we’ve spent billions on air bags, antilock brakes, better steering, safer cars and roads, but the number of fatalities has remained constant…Our return on investment for those billions is zero (because) we’re using devices in our cars.”
And the story also tells us that that goes for hands-free phones also (echoing today’s findings), which also demands more of our time behind the wheel than we can spare when trying to avoid accidents on the road.
Some states have overcome opposition to pass restrictions. Joe Simitian, a state senator in California, managed to get his hands-free legislation, an effort he began in 2001, passed in 2006. He argued, based on data collected by the California Highway Patrol, that drivers using cell phones caused more fatalities than all the drivers distracted by eating, children, pets or personal hygiene.
In each previous year, the bill was killed — after lobbying by cell phone carriers, including Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile. Mr. Simitian said that in the first two years, he would visit the offices of his colleagues on the Transportation Committee on the day of the vote and “find three cell phone industry lobbyists sitting in the legislator’s office,” Mr. Simitian said. “They’d just smile.”
He said they fought him even though their brochures said that distracted driving was dangerous. The exception was Verizon Wireless, which supported his efforts from the start.
Opposition gradually eased, and his bill requiring use of headsets while driving took effect in July 2008. In the first six months the California law was in effect, a preliminary California Highway Patrol estimate showed that fatalities dropped 12.5 percent — saving 200 lives. Mr. Simitian said it was too soon to determine whether the law or other factors caused the drop.
Mr. Simitian said one reason political opposition eased was that fellow legislators saw the dangers firsthand. “They’d come to me and say: ‘You may be bringing me around. I almost got creamed at the corner,’ ” he recalled.
For its part, the cell phone industry trade group said it had dropped its objection to restricting cell phone use by drivers — it now is neutral on the subject — because it decided the industry should play no role in trying to shape public policy on the issue. “The change came after we had an epiphany that, if you will, we’re in the business of providing service, and how they use that service is at their discretion,” said Mr. Walls, the industry spokesman.
But Mr. Windsor from Nationwide Mutual and others are skeptical of the cell phone industry’s explanation. They believe its position changed because its business has changed to rely less on total minutes that people spend talking. Cell phone companies’ growth is coming more from customers surfing the Internet, downloading games and using other data services — things that people typically do less of behind the wheel.
Mr. Simitian believes that a ban on talking on cell phones while driving would save even more lives. But he hasn’t proposed one, and has no plans to. “It’s a political nonstarter,” he said. “It’ll be a cold day in hell before people give up their phones altogether in cars.”
At this point, I need to share the following observation. We recently drove the Doomsymobile to the Jersey shore and back as well as to the Phillies game and back on Monday and counted about half a dozen people playing with their cell phones looking to retrieve messages, check a contact list, or God knows what else. And they were doing this both while stuck in traffic and trying to maintain their speed on the highway (and I’ve lost count of the number of distracted drivers I have to share the road with who are engrossed in cell phone conversations).
(I don’t know if anyone else out there besides me is old enough to remember this, but back when high schools offered driver education – I don’t know whether that has been chopped from school budgets or not, but if it has, it should be reinstituted – a requirement of the training was to watch this horrendously scary short film called “Signal 30” I believe, which shows the aftermath of an auto accident. As far as I’m concerned, this should be required viewing for anyone attempting to receive a driver’s license.)
Now that I’m finished with my rant on this subject, I’ll provide this link to a post with extensive information on PA cell phone legislation, and this tells us of a cell phone driving bill that was recently defeated in the PA State House by a narrow margin (and yes, people do a whole host of nutty things behind the wheel, and I’ll admit that I haven’t exactly been a “saint” either at times, but the amendment offered by Rep Chris Ross concerning “changing the CD in a car, eating or drinking while driving, shaving, putting on makeup and driving with your pet animal on your lap” is just a bit of overkill).
I realize that, ultimately, what we are trying to do here is legislate good behavior (a quixotic effort at best, I know), particularly given that the whole “gadgets” biz cares only about feeding our perceived need to endanger our lives while we entertain ourselves (and a spot-on column by MoDo today amplifies that point also).
What we need, however, is a “push back” of common sense in response (and let us all hope and pray for no more lost lives before that day finally arrives).