As the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) begins ramping up efforts to combat “distracted driving” by crafting regulations to ban cell phone use and texting services while operating vehicles – even railroad locomotives – a number of experts are trying to gauge whether such initiatives will succeed over the long term.

Upon the conclusion of a two-day summit on distracted driving hosted by the DOT in Washington, D.C., last week, President Obama signed an Executive Order directing federal employees not to engage in text messaging while driving government-owned vehicles; when using electronic equipment supplied by the government while driving; or while driving privately owned vehicles when they’re 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, pointed out Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

LaHood also said DOT plans to create three separate rulemakings to address distracted driving across a number of transportation modes. The measures will: Place permanent restrictions on the use of cell phones and other electronic devices in rail operations; bang text messaging altogether, and restrict the use of cell phones by truck and interstate bus operators; plus disqualify school bus drivers convicted of texting while driving from maintaining their commercial driver’s licenses.

He added that DOT will work to help pass state and local laws against distracted driving in all types of vehicles, especially school buses, and by sking states and local governments to back up public awareness campaigns with high-visibility enforcement actions.

The reason behind this major push to curb distracted driving lies in the growing number of deaths and injuries tied to such behavior. In 2008, according to data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 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.

But LaHood also stressed in his remarks at the summit that regulation alone cannot solve the distracted driving issue. “I want to remind everyone that we cannot rely on legal action alone, because, in reality, you can’t legislate behavior,” he said. “And there aren’t enough police on patrol to catch everyone who’s breaking the law. Taking personal responsibility for our actions is the key to all of this.”

That is a viewpoint echoed by other industry experts as well. "The summit was a good first step to dealing with a complex issue [but] solving distracted driving can't done solely through regulation and legislation,” David Kelly, former NHTSA administrator and now president of safety consulting firm Storm King Strategies, told FleetOwner. “I hope the Department will also look to expand beyond texting and tackle the more difficult issue of cell phones and the distractions they cause.”

The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), for one, agrees with Kelly’s assessment that distracted driving as an issue shouldn’t be limited to just cell phone use or texting when operating motor vehicles and other equipment.

“The same safety risks posed by cellular phones also hold true for a vehicle operator who drives in an unsafe manner while eating, drinking, putting on makeup, reading a newspaper, operating any other electronic device, or [performing] some other type of distracting activity where the driver's mind, eyes, and hands are engaged elsewhere than the road ahead and the steering wheel,” ASSE stated.

A Carnegie Mellon University study shows that brain power decreases by 40% when a driver listens to conversation or music, while a Nationwide Mutual Insurance study found 80% of drivers admit to hazardous behavior behind the wheel, including changing clothes, steering with a foot, painting nails and shaving.

“We hope that this summit and resulting regulation is just a start – that the DOT begins looking deeper into the other issues surrounding distracted driving,” Bill Windsor, safety officer for Nationwide Insurance, told FleetOwner. “For example, there’s a large amount of ‘cognitive distraction’ that occurs during conversations between people. That’s why we must be very careful that we don’t leave the impression that ‘hands free’ cell phone devices are completely safe for drivers to use.”

Windsor pointed to a study by the University of Utah that found that cognitive distraction increases the risk of a vehicle crash by four or five times. “That’s why we think this issue needs a deeper look by the DOT,” he stressed.

Companies that supply communication technology to the trucking industry and other transport modes also believe that DOT should be careful to avoid a wide-reaching ban on all electronic devices – especially those serving commercial trucking applications.

“We believe it is important that any regulatory action involving a ban on texting while driving also take into consideration the important benefits of mobile computing systems used by commercial fleets,” explained Norm Ellis, vp-transportation and logistics sales and services for Qualcomm Enterprise Services.

“Recently there has been a great deal of innovation in designing systems that minimize driver distraction while allowing for critical information to be available when needed,” Ellis noted, “For example, our new systems include an in-motion user interface that prevents drivers from typing messages while driving, but allows the driver to receive critical messages through ‘text-to-speech.’ [That enables ]drivers to listen to, rather than read, a text-based message and to use a remote control device on the steering wheel to play the message.”

All in all, however, Secy. LaHood said that the primary responsibility for reducing the risks posed by distracted driving rests with individual drivers. “Keeping Americans safe is without question the federal government’s highest priority – and that includes safety on the road, as well as on mass transit and rail,” LaHood stated. “Working together, we’re going to make sure that traveling in America is as safe as it can possibly be – and I strongly encourage the public to take personal responsibility for their behavior and show a healthy respect for the rules of the road.”