What We Are Learning About Distracted Driving

November 2009

Much has been said the last few months about cell phones and car accidents. The surprise being that hand held vs. hands free cell phone use is not the major contributing factor of accidents; researchers suggest that perhaps instead it is the conversation itself. Additional research came to light with stark figures for the dangers of text messaging while behind the wheel of a car.

Many of the new research figures are at odds, but all indicate that driving and multi tasking are making our roads and transportation system unsafe with too many drivers who are distracted. The physical reality of the difficulties in tracking cellphones and texting usage per car accident are hard to overcome.

Some US studies use an observer who watches a busy intersection and takes a sample count of total cars and counts the drivers who are either visibly texting or using a cell phone to their ear. The problem with this type of data information are many, for one, only in day time hours can these drivers even be seen, and even in day time, it is possible that the hands-free device or texting instrument is not visible.

Virginia Tech conducted a study using advanced video and electronic information capturing devices. Other researchers like Michigan and University of Utah use simulators.

Virginia Tech researchers found that those who sent or received text messages while driving were 23.2 times more likely to be involved in an automobile crash.

Dr. David Strayer and the University of Utah have also released new data on an 18 month study using a driving simulator and study participants. Both these new studies show that texting while driving is dangerous. The University of Utah study showed an eight times greater crash risk when texting than when not texting. [source: New York Times July 27, 2009 In Study, Texting Lifts Crash Risk by Large Margin ]

Major Public Transportation Accidents Involving Texting, Cellphones and Personal Electronic Devices 2008 and 2009

Across the USA we have been learning more and more of the potential dangers of cell phones and in particular, text messaging. In 2008, California had a horrible commuter train crash. The Chatsworth Metrolink train accident occurred in September 2008 and killed 25 people, and injured 135 because the train operator was texting and ran a red light.

Twenty-five riders were killed and more than 130 people were injured when engineer Robert Sanchez allegedly ran a red light and collided with a Union Pacific freight train. [...] A federal investigation revealed that Sanchez was texting just seconds before the crash, setting up a time for a young rail enthusiast to try his hand behind the wheel. Grossly negligent seems too kind a word. [ Source: Simi Valley Acorn, September 24, 2010 Editorial $200 million just isn't enough ]

In May, 2009, 49 people were injured on a Boston Trolley because the operator of the trolley was texting. In the aftermath, Boston transit officials banned cell phones, texting and personal electronic devices while working for trolley, train, and bus drivers. "the operator of the trolley, which was outbound on the Green line from the Government Center station in downtown Boston, admitted to the authorities that he was text messaging his girlfriend at the time he rear-ended a trolley that had stopped." [ Source: New York Times May 9, 2009: Cellphone Ban After Boston Trolley Crash ]

Technologists have been developing methods of disabling cellphones, GPS, electronics devices, and text message instrumets while a car is being operated. The jamming technology could be the only way of really enforcing cell phone, texting and personal electronic device operation while driving. This technology potential might be very familiar to parents of young drivers.

We have more questions than information at this point, but with recent events, the NHTSA, DOT and state leaders are working to address the problems to make our transportation roads, rails, and wires, safer for all of us to use. Many US States already have laws prohibiting texting for new drivers and operators of public transportation. Some states have more prohibitive laws on texting while driving a car prohibiting all drivers.

In October, the Department of Transportation held a summit on distracted driving. "[] Transportation Department reported that nearly 6,000 people were killed and a half-million were injured last year in vehicle crashes connected to driver distraction. That includes drivers talking on cell phones and texting." [ Source Washington Examiner September 30, 2009, Transportation Department holds summit to find ways of curbing cell phone use by drivers ]

What are the laws for cell phone use, text messaging and using GPS?

Keeping up with the laws pertaining to cell phones, and texting while driving in your area may be difficult and the Insurance Institute of America has a useful tool showing a map of the USA which may also come in handy if you are doing any interstate driving.

Currently text messaging is banned for all drivers in 18 states and the District of Columbia. In addition, novice drivers are banned from texting in 9 states (Delaware, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Texas, and West Virginia) and school bus drivers are banned from text messaging in 1 state (Texas). [Source Insurance Institute for Highway Safety ]

Make sure you keep current on the cell phone and texting laws for the areas your auto driving will take you through. In only two months, Oregon will have a new state wide cell phone law making operating a cell phone while driving a car a primary offense.