Sept. 30, 2009 -- At the Department of Transportation's Distracted Driving Summit, Secretary Ray LaHood kicked off the two-day conference to battle what he described as a menace to society: the problem of texting while driving, one LaHood deems an endemic that "seems to be getting worse every year."
Numbers released this morning by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reveal that drivers younger than 24 are the worst offenders, but that it's a growing trend among all ages. In 2008, drivers who weren't paying attention took nearly 6,000 lives and caused half a million injuries. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving but, ultimately, LaHood said, he would like to eliminate texting while driving nationwide.
"I want to remind everyone that we cannot rely on legal action alone because, in reality, you can't legislate behavior," LaHood said in his opening remarks. "Taking personal responsibility for our actions is the key to all this."
"I thought it was safe, I thought it was something I could do. That I could drive down the road and send a text and be safe," Shaw says in a Utah public service announcement.
The accident killed two men, and landed Shaw in prison for a month.
"The worst offenders are the youngest, least experienced drivers," LaHood said today, detailing that the offenses of distracted driving are committed by public and private citizens alike, on and off the job.
"We need a combination of strong laws, tough enforcement and ongoing public education to make a difference," LaHood said.
More than 300 people attended the summit and officials estimate more than 10,000 are watching at home.
Throughout the two-day summit, the Department of Transportation will bring together safety experts, law enforcement and congressional representatives, as well as a panel of teens and young adults in hopes of changing irresponsible behavior.
This morning's panel, composed of representatives from the National Transportation Safety Board, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the general manager of the Utah Transit Authority, took a close look at how to define and measure driver distraction, given that it can be difficult to quantify. Examining crash data, performing in-depth crash investigations, analyzing self-report surveys and reviewing observation data are among the tools that can be used.
A Growing Trend Among All Ages
The two-day conference will examine the results of experimental research, collision studies and reporting across the industry to determine the effect of technology on transportation and how to remedy the problem of distracted driving.
"We need to raise public awareness that texting is a bad thing to do while you're driving, whether you're driving a school bus, a transit bus, a train or your own car," the transportation secretary said in an interview earlier this week with ABC News.
LaHood said if it were his decision, he would ensure that every electronic message sent while driving would be a crime.
"If I could wave a magic wand, I would eliminate it, but I don't have that magic wand, it would take a law," LaHood told ABCNews. "We actually have four U.S. senators speaking at our conference, our summit, in the next day-and-a-half, and that really begins the process for getting Congress on board to pass laws."
The question, then, is will the summit put pressure on states to step up enforcement of existing laws or perhaps implement tougher new laws? Auto safety experts say the science is clear: Talking on the phone, texting, anything that takes your attention from the road, is dangerous.
In many areas of highway safety, the best countermeasure is the law. The issue with cell phones and texting is having laws that carry a consequence for the driver and are enforceable. Enforcing a ban on hands-free devices is tricky, at best.
"Three years ago, NTSB recommended that DOT ban cell phone use in drivers. ... Nothing has been done; it's now time for DOT to take immediate action," said Jacqueline Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety during a news conference last week. "We shouldn't have to wait for more deaths and injuries on our roads."
A July study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that truck drivers who text are 23 times more likely to crash than those who don't. Further evidence of distraction is highlighted in a Department of Transportation study that suggests one in four reported crashes show distraction was a factor in the accident.
"It's not possible to drive safely while you're texting," LaHood said. "It just simply is not because your attention is drawn away from driving a vehicle."
Recent studies have added fuel to the cause of safety advocates, last week spurring Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety to roll out a petition requesting the Department of Transportation regulate the use of electronic devices by commercial motor vehicle operators in the United States.
Safety Advocates Call for Action
Elissa Schee, the mother of 13-year-old Frances "Margay" Schee, who died in a Florida car accident last year, spoke in favor of the petition to keep commercial drivers off cell phones while on the road.
"I speak from my heart when I say that just one loss is dramatically life-changing and not worth wasting one moment of debate about whether or not to adopt a policy that will protect our children and keep our families whole," Schee said through tears, explaining how her daughter was killed when a tractor-trailer driver, who was using a cell phone, hit the back of her daughter's school bus, which then caught fire, trapping Margay inside.
"What happened to Margay was not an isolated incident," she said. "These tragedies are increasingly occurring on our nation's roadways and they are preventable."
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers also supports immediate action, last week calling for a ban on phone use while behind the wheel.
"Clearly, using a hand-held device to text or call while driving is a safety risk," alliance president and CEO Dave McCurdy said. "That makes it incompatible with maintaining the focus necessary to safely drive a vehicle, and the alliance supports a ban on hand-held texting and calling while driving to accelerate the transition to more advanced, safer ways to manage many common potential distractions."
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.
Changing the Law One State at a Time
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.
Officials Hope for Legislative Fix
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.