One solution to the problem could come in the form of technology. As the Governors Highway Safety Association argues, technology created the problem, but it can also be part of the solution. Systems are being developed that can disengage a cell phone while the driver is driving, but the problem with these solutions is that they are voluntary.
State legislatures are responsible for deciding whether to prohibit texting while behind the wheel and, thus far, 18 states and the District of Columbia have taken action. Maryland is the latest state to join the bandwagon. On Oct. 1, a law that bans texting while driving will go into effect there, slapping violators with a fine of as much as $500. While the law prohibits sending messages, many are concerned that it does not address other forms of distracted driving, such as reading, eating or even using applications, such as Facebook.
Utah has the toughest texting-while-driving law on the books. The state enacted the measure after an accident in which two men were killed by a teen driver who was texting. Now, a driver in Utah can receive up to 15 years in prison if he or she causes injury or death while texting and driving.
Some state legislatures have responded to the growing concern by banning hand-held cell phones only, while others have chosen to single out a specific demographic, such as commercial drivers, or teenagers, and implement restrictions.
Efforts to make distracted driving federally regulated emerged in Congress this summer. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Kay Hagan, D-N.C., unveiled legislation in July that would require states to ban anyone from texting or e-mailing while operating a moving vehicle. If the bill passes, states that fail to comply with the new law within six months would risk losing federal highway funds.
"The states have been moving in the direction of passing laws concerning passenger vehicles, but there's a patchwork quilt out there," Gillan of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety said. "It's a cognitive problem ... whether it's hands-free or hand-held, again, distraction is distraction."
Despite widespread studies, many believe these laws are difficult to enforce and say they won't fix the problem. The panel Thursday will delve into these regulatory and enforcement obstacles posed by distracted driving with presentations from various members of state legislatures as well as a representative from the Federal Transit Administration, who will participate.
The issue of public awareness of the safety issues will also be addressed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, National Organizations for Youth Safety and Seventeen magazine, among other guests.