From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Federal Government to Tackle Distracted Driving

Death shadows distracted drivers, yet mobile multitasking persists. Despite bad news stories about multitasking drivers and startling research findings, the previous federal government adopted a hands-off approach. The new one plans to engage. Secretary of Transportation (DOT) Ray LaHood has announced plans for a distracted driving summit in September. The texting-behind-the-wheel habit, which now has its own short handle – TBW – promises to be the centerpoint.

There is no doubt that the risks of mobile multitasking are flourishing in the wireless era.  A 2003 Harvard University study estimated that cellphone distractions cause 2,600 traffic deaths every year, and 330,000 accidents that result in moderate or severe injuries. That was in 2003. Back then, there were relatively few cellphones, “text” hadn’t yet acquired a verb form and “twittering” was for the birds. In 2008 the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), a trade group, claimed 240 million United States subscribers in a nation of 303 million people. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published a study suggesting that at any time during daylight hours in 2007, 11 percent –  or 1.8 million drivers – were using a cellphone.

Text-messaging, now so common it is understood as “texting,” has achieved cult status and its own lexicon. The practice has soared, according to CTIA, which reports that phone users in the United States in December sent 110 billion messages.

Headlines about near misses are enough to startle. In 2006 The New York Times wrote about a city cabbie who was so engrossed in his cellphone conversation while his passenger was unloading a stroller from the trunk that he drove off with her baby. With the mother giving chase, the driver discovered his mistake after half a block. The baby was unhurt. Others are not so fortunate. In 2008 in Oklahoma,  20-year-old Chris Hill was so engrossed in a call that he ran a red light and rammed Linda Doyle’s vehicle, killing her.

In a July 2009 NYT article about Chris Hill, Oklahoma City police sergeant Matthew Downing told the interviewer that increasingly, he sees erratic behavior – swerving across lanes, running red lights – that looks just like drunken driving. The drivers are talking on their phones, or texting, he said. “A ton of people pass me literally unaware of their surroundings.” He said he felt angry, both at Hill and at what he sees as an epidemic of multitasking on the road.

In September 2008, a California commuter train engineer missed a stop signal while trading text messages with a friend, leading to a collision with a freight train that killed 25 people and injured 135 others.

DOT Secretary LaHood recounted the California train fatality in the news statement about the September summit, which says that the department will gather experts in Washington DC “to exchange ideas on how to combat distracted driving and discuss legal and policy changes.”

"The bottom line is, we need to put an end to unsafe cellphone use, typing on BlackBerrys and other activities that require drivers to take their eyes off the road and their focus away from driving," LaHood said in the statement.

What Is Distracted Driving?

Today’s fully-equipped drivers travel with phones, navigation devices and even laptops. Their transportation doubles as a mobile office and as a social networking and entertainment center. Then there are distractions as old as vehicular transportation: misbehaving children, arguments, even ordinary conversation, billboards, mobile lunchtime and lipstick time. As distracted driving takes manifold forms, one of the first challenges at the summit will be determining what aspects to address.

A 2005 study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) spreads the blame.  VTTI researchers set up a 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study to answer questions about distracted driving. Over an approximately one-year period, volunteers drove 100 specially-equipped vehicles in and around the metropolitan DC area. The vehicles were equipped with video and sensor devices to monitor driving behavior while drivers engaged in normal everyday activities. The 100 vehicles logged nearly 2 million miles, yielding 42,300 hours of data.

The findings, released in April 2006, found that driver inattention is the leading factor in most crashes and near–crashes, with nearly 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near–crashes involving some form of driver inattention within three seconds before the event.  Eating, conversing, looking away from the roadway were among many implicated activities, according to the study, [but]  “the use of hand-held wireless devices was associated with the highest frequency of secondary task distraction-related events, and was among the highest frequencies for crashes.”

Other much-headlined studies focus on the cellphone universe. A University of Utah study showed  that drivers using phones are four times as likely to cause a crash as other drivers, and the likelihood that they will crash is equal to that of someone with a 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level, the point at which drivers are generally considered intoxicated. A second study shows that hands-free devices do not eliminate the risks, and may worsen them by suggesting the behavior is safe.

In a 2008 study, Carnegie Mellon University scientists found that just listening to a cellphone while driving is a significant distraction, and causes drivers to commit some of the same types of driving errors that can occur under the influence of alcohol. The study used brain imaging to document that listening alone reduces by 37 percent the amount of brain activity associated with driving. This can cause drivers to weave out of their lane, based on the performance of subjects using a driving simulator.

The findings, reported in the journal Brain Research, show that making cellphones hands-free or voice-activated is not sufficient in eliminating distractions to drivers. "Drivers need to keep not only their hands on the wheel; they also have to keep their brains on the road," said neuroscientist Marcel Just, director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging. There are reasons to believe cellphones may be especially distracting, he noted. "Talking on a cellphone has a special social demand, such that not attending to the cell conversation can be interpreted as rude, insulting behavior," he noted. A passenger, by contrast, is likely to recognize increased demands on the driver’s attention and stop talking.

A new VTTI study shows the risk of TBW sharply exceeds previous estimates based on laboratory research and far surpasses the dangers of other driving distractions.

As measures to curb activities such as eating and conversing in a car and would face nearly-insuperable objections, the DOT could confine debate at the summit to TBW – an activity that has the best chance of concrete action because its dangers are so manifest. The figures from the latest VTTI study led to a ban in Virginia that went into effect on July 1, and could influence states that are sitting on a fence.

VTTI outfitted the cabs of long-haul trucks with video cameras over 18 months. The researchers reported in July that when the drivers texted, their collision risk was 23 times greater than when not texting. By comparison, several studies show that the risks for cellphone-using drivers are at 3-4 times the danger faced by drivers with their full attention on the road.

The Institute researchers also measured the time drivers took their eyes from the road to send or receive texts. In the moments before a crash or near crash, drivers typically spent nearly five seconds looking at their devices — enough time at typical highway speeds to cover more than the length of a football field.

Even though trucks take longer to stop and are less maneuverable than cars, the findings generally applied to all drivers, who tend to exhibit the same behaviors as the more than 100 truckers studied, the researchers said. Truckers, they said, do not appear to text more or less than typical car drivers, but they said the study did not compare use patterns that way.

In a recent NYT interview, VTTI director Tom Dingus said the study’s message was clear. “You should never do this,” he said of texting while driving. “It should be illegal.”

Big Brother and Nanny Government

The District of Columbia and 14 states – Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and Washington – have passed laws that ban texting while driving. But no state legislature has banned distracted driving. In 2009, according to the Times, state legislators introduced some 170 bills to address distracted driving, but passed fewer than 10.

Five states and the District of Columbia require drivers to use a headset when talking on the phone.

Secretary LaHood’s announcement about the summit came one week after several legislators took on the fight to break the nation’s distracted driving habit. Sens. Charles Schumer of New York, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina recently unveiled the ALERT Drivers Act proposal.  It calls on the DOT to set minimum compliance standards that states would have to meet within two years. States that did not could lose 25 percent of federal highway funding.

The NYT points out that the federal government generally does not pass laws governing conduct behind the wheel, preferring to set a standard for the states and makes adherence a condition of receiving highway aid. Congress used the technique to persuade all 50 states to raise the drinking age to 21 and set a blood-alcohol level that became the uniform definition for drunken driving.

Interested Parties Building Up Muscle

Preparing for a possible strong arm from Washington, interested parties are muscling-up for the contest.

They will include representatives of states that are ideologically primed to resist any attempt by the federal government to exert pressure. Dozens of editorials in major newspapers have called for government action against texting, in particular, but action from Washington risks being dismissed as Big Brother-ism and nanny government.

The supporters of government action include two consumer groups that recently published evidence of what they describe as a cover-up by the George W. Bush administration. Using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain government documents, the Center for Auto Safety (CAS) and Public Citizen found that the federal government knew about the risks as early as 2003 but did not publicize its research.  The Los Angeles Times and New York Times broke the cover-up story in July.

The Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety agencies, has said it does not doubt the dangers of texting and driving but does not support a ban because it would be difficult to enforce.

Few states even require the kind of data on crashes that could illuminate the scale of the distracted driving problem. They do not require police to ask a driver whether he or she was distracted by a phone or other device leading up to the crash, and drivers are unlikely to volunteer such information.

Trade group CTIA fought the idea of rules on phone use while driving until January, but has since adopted a softer tone.

On their websites, the American Automobile Association and National Motorists Association acknowledge the dangers of TBW and other forms of drivers’ cellphone use, but state that they oppose a ban. Explaining its position, the NMA states that it believes “in freedom and responsibility to make choices, not in ‘one size fits all.’ Both organizations favor more moves to educate the public about the danger.

Device makers and auto companies acknowledge the risks of multitasking behind the wheel, while developing and vigorously marketing devices that can be counted on to cause distractions.

Ford Motor Company has seized upon research like the VTTI 2005 study, which links many crashes to looking away from the road, to promote its voice-activated Sync system. The $395 system lets drivers use phones and music players with voice commands. The company says it is working to develop the product so drivers might even surf the Internet through voice commands and hear responses.

Other Drivers Are the Dangerous Ones

If government agencies and state governments do find consensus on measures to curb the habit, they won’t be able to count on cooperation from the public. The statistics and research about the danger drivers are to themselves and others when their attention is not on the road has penetrated the public mind, but is producing inconsistencies rather than a change of behavior.

In a poll released in August, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 58 percent of drivers consider other motorists talking on a cell phone to be a very serious threat and that 87 percent consider motorists e-mailing or texting to be such a threat. And yet 67 percent of drivers said had they recently talked on the phone while driving and 21 percent had recently texted.

And in a survey of 1,506 people in 2008 by Nationwide Mutual Insurance, 81 percent of cell phone owners acknowledged that they talk on phones while driving, and 98 percent considered themselves safe drivers. But 45 percent said they had been hit or nearly hit by a driver talking on a phone.

“When we ask people to identify the most dangerous distraction on the highway today, about half — correctly — identify cellphones,” said Bill Windsor, associate vice president for safety at Nationwide. “But they think others are dangerous, not themselves.”

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.

Joe Berry, Ford’s director of business and product development, told the NYT recently that his company’s Sync system enhances safety by providing a hands-free experience, but he admitted that not using a device is even still safer. “It’s not as if you are going to be able to take this away from people,” he said of phones and other devices in cars. “They simply won’t give it up.”

Sources: Department of Transportation; Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association; New York Times; Los Angeles Times; Nationwide Insurance; AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety; Virginia Tech Transportation Institute; Carnegie Mellon University; University of Utah;  National Motorists Association; American Automobile Association; Ford Motor Company 

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2009-08-19.