Summit time for distracted driving

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“We must act now to stop distracted driving from becoming a deadly epidemic on our nation's roadways. This Summit will give safety leaders from across the nation a forum to identify, target and tackle the fundamental elements of this problem.” –U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood

This week, a two-day government-sponsored summit will gather safety experts, researchers, elected officials, and (of course) a variety of interest groups in our nation’s capital to focus on the growing roadway safety issue of distracted driving.

This summit meeting has been in the works for a while now, and it’s going to feature five panels – on data, research, technology, policy, and outreach – with a range of experts discussing each topic.

And these aren’t lightweights, I stress. For example, to “set the stage” for the summit, as it were, an overview of the problem of distracted driving will be guided by Victor Mendez, administrator for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), this Wednesday with insight from: Dr. John D. Lee, professor, department of industrial and systems engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Bruce Magladry, director, office of highway safety for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB); Kristin Backstrom, senior manager, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety; and John Inglish, general manager, Utah Transit Authority.

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Rose McMurray (at right), acting deputy administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is leading a panel on determining how risky distracted driving really is, with insight offered by: Dr. Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute; Dr. William Horrey, with insurance giant Liberty Mutual’s Research Institute for Safety; and Dr. Key Dismukes, chief scientist-human systems integration division with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (that would be NASA – and you though there were no ties between trucking and the space program!)

Dr. David Eby, research associate professor and head of social and behavioral analysis for the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, along with Rod MacKenzie, chief technology officer and vice president of programs with the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, are two of the luminaries that will discuss the distractions caused by technology, the efforts needed to assess and reduce the negative impact of distractions caused by current and planned devices, plus technologies that can prevent the consequences of distraction.

On Thursday this week, the legislative, regulatory, and law enforcement approaches to address distracted driving get a good going-over. Peter Rogoff, administrator for the Federal Transit Administration, leads a panel comprised of: John D’Amico, representative of the Illinois General Assembly; Bruce Starr, a state senator from Oregon; State representative Steve Farley from Arizona; Major David Salmon, director-traffic services division, New York State Police; and Vernon Betkey, chairman Governors Highway Safety Association and director, Maryland Highway Safety Office.

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Probably one of the more interesting panels closes this two-day summit; a panel that not only reviews ongoing initiatives to increase public awareness of safety issues such as distracted driving, but also reviews research regarding the effectiveness of such efforts. Ron Medford, acting deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), will lead this panel discussion, joined by: Chuck Hurley (at left), executive director and CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD); Janet Froetscher, president and CEO of the National Safety Council; and Dr. Adrian Lund, president, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

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They’ll also be joined by two unusual guests: Sandy Spavone, executive director of the National Organizations for Youth Safety and Ann Shoket, (at right) Editor-in-Chief, Seventeen Magazine – yes, THAT Seventeen magazine. No doubt that Shoket will be able to tell the assembled experts whether any of their concerns about distracted driving are making any impact on younger drivers, especially teenagers. It’ll be interesting to hear what she says.

Even as this two-day event gets underway this week, efforts are being ramped up to legislatively attack many of the behaviors that lead to distracted driving.

For example, AAA and its safety advocacy arm AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety are launching a broad national effort to pass laws banning text messaging by drivers in all 50 states by 2013 – something that we’ll hear more about, no doubt, as the groups are participating in this week’s summit.

AAA pointed to a study by one of its state members, the Auto Club of Southern California, that analyzed a texting while driving ban implemented in the Golden State back in January – a ban that appears to be reducing texting by drivers.

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Prior to the California texting while driving ban, researchers observed 1.4% of drivers at any point in time in Orange County, CA, were texting while driving, said AAA. Following the law taking effect, just 0.4% of drivers were observed texting—a decline of about 70% overall. This indicates that banning texting while driving can potentially change driving behavior of motorists, reduce dangerous distracted driving, and improve safety, AAA noted.

The problem though, is widespread, according to the AAA Foundation's research. It shows that approximately one in five U.S. drivers admit to texting while driving at least once in the last 30 days. That is why AAA said it is advocating for laws that make it illegal for drivers of all ages to send, write, or read a text message or e-mail while their vehicle is in motion.

Currently, 18 states and the District of Columbia have laws that address text messaging by all drivers. Two more states have laws that prohibit teens or other new drivers from texting while driving – yet laws differ across the states and some have significant shortcomings, according to Tom Frymark, AAA regional president.

“New technologies that help us multitask in our everyday lives and increasingly popular social media sites present a hard-to-resist challenge to the typically safe driver,” Frymark said. “AAA will lobby nationwide to pass laws in states that lack them and improve existing laws against texting while driving. We’ll also continue our work through public education, driver training, and other safety programs to discourage motorists from engaging in the broad range of other distractions that tempt them while behind the wheel.”

Needless to say, it’ll be interesting to see how all of this comes together at this week’s big summit on distracted driving – and more importantly, how its findings may drive the creation of new laws and regulations across the nation in the months ahead.

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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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