DOT vs. distracted driving

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To put it plainly, distracted driving is a menace to society. This trend distresses me deeply, both on a personal level, and as the nation’s chief executive for transportation safety. And it seems to be getting worse every year.” – Ray LaHood, U.S. Transportation Secretary

Ray LaHood and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) are on the warpath against distracted driving – with the agency’s regulatory apparatus shifting into high gear over this all-of-a-sudden volatile issue.

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Right after the DOT wrapped up its long-awaited two-day summit on the issue of distracted driving last week, President Obama signed an Executive Order directing federal employees forbidding several such distracted behaviors. Federal employees now cannot: engage in text messaging while driving government-owned vehicles; use electronic equipment supplied by the government while driving; or do either of the above while driving privately owned vehicles when on official government business.

The order also encourages federal contractors and others doing business with the government to adopt and enforce their own policies banning texting while driving on the job, noted LaHood.

LaHood stressed that DOT plans to create three separate rulemakings to address distracted driving across a number of transportation modes, including:

• Making permanent restrictions on the use of cell phones and other electronic devices in rail operations;

• Banning text messaging altogether, and restrict the use of cell phones by truck and interstate bus operators;

• Disqualifying school bus drivers convicted of texting while driving, from maintaining their commercial driver’s licenses.

“Every single time you take your eyes off the road or talk on the phone while you’re driving – even for just a few seconds – you put your life in danger,” LaHood said in his speech before the summit. “You also put others in danger, too. This kind of behavior is irresponsible – and the consequences are devastating.”

[Below you’ll find a video of LaHood describing the DOT’s concerns over distracted driving.]

Here’s the damage distracted driving causes, according to data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA. In 2008, 5,870 people lost their lives and an estimated 515,000 people were injured in police-reported crashes in which at least one form of driver distraction was noted, the agency said. Here’s some added detail on those numbers from NHTSA:

• Driver distraction was reported to have been involved in 16% of all fatal crashes in 2008 according to data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS).

• The age group with the greatest proportion of distracted drivers was the under-20 age group—16% of all under-20 drivers in fatal crashes were reported to have been distracted while driving.

• An estimated 21% of injury crashes were reported to have involved distracted driving, according to data from the General Estimates System (GES).

• Based on data from the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey (NMVCCS) – a nationally representa¬tive survey– in crashes where the critical reason for the crash was attributed to the driver, approximately 18% involved distraction.

• During the 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study conducted by Virginia Tech Transportation Institute for NHTSA, driver involvement in secondary tasks contributed to over 22% of all crashes and near-crashes recorded during the study period.

“Across the board, federal researchers who have directly observed drivers of all ages found that more and more people are using a variety of hand-held devices while driving – not just cell phones, but also iPods, video games, Blackberrys, and so forth,” said LaHood. “They’re doing it every day of the week, in the rain, and with kids in the car.”

And he stressed that this problem isn’t limited to private citizens. “Incredibly, [transit] bus drivers, train operators, truck drivers, and even school bus drivers have allowed distractions to interfere with their work,” LaHood noted. “A year ago, a commuter train engineer in Chatsworth, California was so busy texting a friend that he failed to stop at a red signal. He caused one of the worst passenger rail accidents in years, killing 25 people and injuring 135 more.”

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This July, LaHood pointed out, a 25 year-old tow truck driver in upstate New York texting and talking on a cell phone crashed through a fence, side-swiped a house, landed in a swimming pool, and injured his passenger.

“A generation ago, our society often turned a blind eye to people who would drink and drive, or not use a seatbelt, or maybe both,” he said. “Those problems taught us a valuable lesson: We need a combination of strong laws, tough enforcement, and ongoing public education, to make a difference.”

Whether you agree with LaHood’s take on how serious distracted driving is as a safety issue – and the DOT’s regulatory plan to quash such behavior – or not, one thing is certain: there’s going to be a tremendous amount of focus on distracted driving at federal level, trickling down in a fast rush to the state and local level, too. And that’s going to affect how truck drivers conduct themselves behind the wheel – especially when big dollar fines over “distractive behavior” start getting bandied about.

“This year, more than 200 distracted driving bills have been introduced in 46 state legislatures,” said LaHood. “So far, 21 states and the District of Columbia ban cell phones for novice drivers and six states and D.C. ban cell phone use by all drivers. [So] though this problem is still widespread, there is a growing willingness to take action.”

But LaHood also noted – and I think this is important – that regulations and aggressive law enforcement can’t do it all when it comes to curbing distractive driving behaviors. And guess what – the same goes for every negative behavior we’re attempting to eradicate from the driving public, such as reckless driving, speeding, drunk and drugged driving, etc.

“I want to remind everyone that we cannot rely on legal action alone, because in reality, you can’t legislate behavior,” LaHood stressed. “There aren’t enough police on patrol to catch everyone who’s breaking the law [so] taking personal responsibility for our actions is the key to all of this … so keep your eyes on the road. It’s up to each of us to do that. This affects everybody who gets into a vehicle, day or night. We’re in this together, as a nation, and we’ve got to solve it together.”

That, at least, is a truth I think everyone can agree on as the debate – and action – on distracted driving continues to grow.

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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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