Distracted Drivers Beware: A New Group Aims to Stop You

Attention distracted drivers: There's a brand new group devoted to getting you to stop.

Today, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Janet Froetscher, president of the National Safety Council, announced the creation of FocusDriven, the first nonprofit organization devoted to combating distracted driving and supporting victims of distracted drivers.

"I don't want your children or my grandchildren to suffer at the hands of a driver who is too busy to pay attention to the rules of the road," LaHood said today at an event in Washington.

The group is modeled after the organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving, except that it aims to stop people from driving while distracted.

VIDEO: How Do You Stop Texting and Driving? Play

The National Safety Council estimates that at least 28 percent of all traffic crashes -- or at least 1.6 million each year -- are caused by drivers using cell phones and texting.

Rob Reynolds, a father of five from Omaha, Neb., serves on FocusDriven's board of directors. He lost his eldest daughter, 16-year-old Cady, when she drove her best friend home from a movie and was struck by another 16-year-old in an SUV who was distracted at the time. Cady died hours after the accident.

"Driving away from the hospital, devastated from our loss, my wife and I reaffirmed our commitment to each other, our four other children's well-being and we both expressed our strong desire to honor Cady's short life by helping to divert other teens and adults from driving while distracted," Reynolds said in a press release.

Shelley Forney, from Fort Collins, Colo., lost her 9-year-old daughter, Erica, in 2008 when a woman driving a Ford Expedition looked down at her cell phone just before she struck Erica as she was riding her bike home from school.

"What hurts most is knowing that this didn't have to happen," Fornery wrote in a press statement. Forney also serves on the group's board of directors.

Jennifer Smith, a woman from Grapevine, Texas, leads the group. Her mother, Linda, was killed in 2008 by a young man who ran a red light and T-boned her car. He was going 40-45 mph, the posted speed limit, but talking on a cell phone.

According to Smith, the young man was a "sober, churchgoing 20-year-old who had never even had a speeding ticket." Smith said the young man was on the phone for less than a minute, and never saw the red traffic light.

"It is my hope that FocusDriven will serve as a valuable resource for those who have lost loved ones as a result of the senseless and preventable destructive practice of distracted driving," said Jennifer Smith, president of FocusDriven, in a press release.

"Secretary LaHood and the Department of Transportation's attention to this topic have helped make it a top safety issue. Their efforts have provided hope that we can quickly eliminate this threat and prevent other families from going through what we have experienced," Smith said.

"They're preventable. For us not to stop it is absolutely unforgiveable," Froetscher said today.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines distracted driving as any "non-driving activity a person engages in that has the potential to distract him or her from the primary task of driving and increase the risk of crashing." There are three major types of distraction -- visual, manual and cognitive, or in lay terms, taking one's eyes off the road, hands off the steering wheel, or one's mind off of driving.

While distracted driving has always been a safety issue, with the advent of new mobile communication devices and technologies, it has become what the new group calls a "growing epidemic." The group considers cell phone texting the most alarming of newer distractions, because it involves all three types of distraction.

So far, a ban against texting while driving has been enacted in 19 states plus Washington, D.C. and Guam, according to the Department of Transportation Web site distraction.gov. The states are: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and Washington.

Six states plus Washington, D.C. and the Virgin Islands have banned the use of all hand-held devices for any reason while driving including, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Washington.

Other forms of distracted driving include driving while using a cell phone, eating and drinking, talking to passengers, grooming, changing the radio station, CD or Mp3 player, watching a video or reading, or using a PDA or navigation system or other portable electronic devices.

According to the NHTSA, the proportion of drivers reportedly distracted at the time of the fatal crashes increased from 8 percent in 2004 to 11 percent in 2008.

In 2008, 5,870 people were killed in police-reported car crashes, where at least one form of driver distraction was reported, accounting for 16 percent of all fatalities in crashes that year. And an estimated 515,000 people were injured in crashes, an estimated 21 percent of all injury crashes where driver distraction was reported.

The group says these numbers could be understated, since a driver distraction's role in a crash can be difficult to determine using only police-reported data.

Young people under 20 had the highest proportion of distracted drivers involved in fatal crashes, accounting for 16 percent. The next largest group of distracted drivers was the 20- to 29-year-old age group, with 12 percent.

LaHood said he hoped that distracted driving would become a hot button issue for Congress this year, and that FocusDriven would do for distracted driving what groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving have done for drunk driving.

He admonished people who continue to drive while distracted.

"I don't care what the distraction is. If you're eating a hamburger, pulling through a fast food restaurant, combing your hair, shaving, putting eye makeup on, trying to get a disruptive child in the back seat to behave -- those are all distractions," LaHood said.

"We're against all that. My point of view is we're going to set the highest bar possible. That's where we are at right now. No distractions."