The distraction paradox

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Driving while texting, emailing or talking on the phone aren't perceived as egregious behaviors despite overwhelming scientific evidence of the serious crash risk these behaviors pose. The ‘do as I say, not as I do’ attitude is prevalent throughout much of the driving public.” – Peter Kissinger, president and CEO, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

Here’s a discouraging point in the debate surrounding distracted driving: no one seems willing to practice what they preach. That at least is what the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety discovered as part of its 2010 Traffic Safety Culture Index.

The group’s study found that a majority of drivers (62%) feel that talking on a cell phone is a very serious threat to safety, but they do not always behave accordingly or believe that others share these views. In fact, nearly 70% of those surveyed admitted to talking on their phones and 24% said they read or sent text messages or emails while driving in the previous month.

Well now! Those kinds of details don’t bode well for U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s efforts to combat distracted driving behaviors, now do they?

Sure, Secretary LaHood announced at this week’s national “Distracted Driving Summit” that he is initiating a new rulemaking to prohibit commercial truck drivers from texting while transporting hazardous materials. In addition, he noted two rules proposed at last year’s summit are now the “law of the land,” such as banning commercial bus and truck drivers from texting on the job while restricting train operators from using cell phones and other electronic devices while in the driver’s seat.

“We are taking action on a number of fronts to address the epidemic of distracted driving in America,” LaHood noted. “With the help of the experts, policymakers, and safety advocates we’ve assembled here, we are going to do everything we can to put an end to distracted driving and save lives.”

Well, it’s good to put rules in place prohibiting cell phone use and texting by commercial drivers, but then they are professionals – what they are doing behind the wheel is a job, and most folks follow the rules closely while working.

When you leave the office environment, though, things change – especially for everyday motorist. And it is the everyday motorist that often is the initial cause of truck-car crashes.

The AAA Foundation’s own research noted this in a report it crafted back in 2005 with the help of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). That study found that in 73% of the truck-car crashes studied, no unsafe act on the part of the truck driver caused the accident.

Other crash data showed that car drivers are four times more likely to rear end a truck than truckers are to rear end cars; are 10 times more likely to crash into a truck head on than vice versa; are three times more likely to speed in poor road conditions (such as rain) than truck drivers; and are eight times more likely to be involved in crashes involving drowsiness than truckers.

Now, add in the salient fact that most motorists – even though fully aware of the dangers posed by distracted driving – by and large aren’t changing their behavior behind the wheel when it comes to texting or cell phone usage. That doesn’t bode well when big hopes are being pinned to the this effort to stamp out “distracted driving.”

And let’s not kid ourselves, either – so-called ‘distracted driving” causes crashes; a lot of them. In 2009, nearly 5,500 people died and half a million were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), with distraction-related fatalities representing 16% of overall traffic fatalities in 2009.

It’s easy to see how distraction can lead to vehicle crashes, too. Just take research conducted by Ralph Craft, then a senior transportation specialist for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) Office of Analysis back in 2008.

According to his findings, the most common critical events that cause crashes are running out of the travel lane, crossing through intersections or hitting a vehicle stopped in the lane. Craft said that the four most common critical reasons for these events—non-performance due to factors such as sickness or sleepiness; inattention or recognition; poor decision-making and overcompensation—all relate to the driver and not the vehicle.

“Sixteen of the 24 [most common crash] factors relate to the drivers and not the vehicle,” Craft said in a conference call with reporters two years ago. “There’s plenty of blame for large trucks, buses and passenger vehicles in crashes, but the ‘causative’ factors lie mainly with drivers … the vehicle issues are secondary.”

He added – and this is important – that it’s hard to do much about some of these causes.

“It’s very difficult to legislate many of these factors,” Craft said. “Can we make it a crime to be distracted? We need to do more research in human behavior and do things above and beyond what we can legislate … we want to find the factors that FMCSA can do something about, through research and education.”

Now, let’s return to the AAA Foundation’s 2010 Traffic Safety Culture Index study. Here, in plain sight, are some of the hurdles the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) distracted driving campaign must overcome:

• Motorists rated distracted driving behaviors as some of the most serious threats to their safety, yet many admitted to distracted behaviors like talking on the cell phone or texting or e-mailing while driving;

• Nearly 90% identify texting or e-mailing while driving as a very serious threat and 80% would support a law banning it;

• Nine out of ten people personally consider texting or emailing while driving unacceptable and two-thirds indicated that they would lose some respect for a friend who they saw engaging in those activities while driving;

• However, nearly a quarter of all those surveyed said they had read or sent a text or e-mail while driving in the last month;

• However, nearly 70% of all those surveyed admitted talking on phone while driving in the past month.

Now, the DOT thinks strong laws coup0led with strong enforcement can help in reduce distracted driving. Indeed, NHTSA released interim data from its pilot enforcement programs currently underway in Hartford, CT, and Syracuse, NY, this week showing success with this approach.

Dubbed “Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other,” the year-long pilot campaigns were launched in April to test whether increased law enforcement efforts combined with public service announcements can succeed in getting distracted drivers to put down their cell phones and focus on the road.

During two week-long periods of stepped up enforcement to date, police in Hartford have written approximately 4,956 tickets and Syracuse police have issued 4,446 tickets for violations involving drivers talking or texting on cell phones, NHTSA said.

Also, before and after each enforcement wave, NHTSA said it conducted observations of driver cell phone use and collected public awareness surveys at driver licensing offices in each test and comparison site. Based on these observations and surveys, hand-held cell phone use has dropped 56% in Hartford and 38% in Syracuse to date, with texting while driving declining 68% in Hartford and 42% in Syracuse.

“Good laws are important, but we know from past efforts to curb drunk driving and promote seatbelts that enforcement is the key,” said LaHood. “Our pilot programs in Syracuse and Hartford are critical pieces of our overall effort to get people to realize distracted driving is dangerous and wrong. I want to commend the police in Hartford and Syracuse for their excellent work keeping our roads safe and serving as a model for other communities.”

“Motor vehicle crashes suddenly, prematurely and violently end the lives of tens of thousands of Americans each year – killing more of our children, teens and young adults than any other single cause,” added AAA foundation’s Kissinger. “Using a phone while driving increases your risk of being in a crash fourfold due to the physical, visual and mental distractions.”

But until people start changing their behavior, that risk shall remain. And if the AAA Foundation’s data tells us anything, motorists aren’t changing their behavior in terms of texting and cell phone use when behind the wheel in significant numbers yet.

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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