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DOT Targets Distractions
Monday, 10 August 2009 00:00

WASHINGTON—Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced last week he will take steps to try to further curb distracting driving activities such as text messaging or using a cell phone or a Global Positioning System device.

LaHood said Aug. 4 he will hold a summit in September with transportation leaders, members of Congress and safety groups that will create a list of steps to reduce “the rash of accidents and fatalities that have cropped up because of distracted driving.” “If it were up to me, I would ban drivers from texting immediately, but laws aren’t always enough. Often, you need to combine education with enforcement to get results,” LaHood said.

The secretary announced his plan shortly after the release of a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute report, in which a study found that text messaging while driving exponentially increased the chance of a crash.

“The bottom line is, we need to put an end to unsafe cell phone use, typing on BlackBerrys and other activities that require drivers to take their eyes off the road and their focus away from driving,” he said. In recent years, 16 states and the District of Columbia have enacted bans on text messaging while driving. In addition, four Democratic senators introduced a bill in July that would strip federal highway money from states that did not enact similar bans.

LaHood told reporters that “we’re primarily focusing our attention on drivers that are texting, using cell phones and also trying to adjust their GPS system in their car.

” When asked by reporters, he indicated other types of in-cab technology used by truck drivers were “the kind of distractions that we don’t want drivers being distracted by.”

“These distractions are real, real serious problems,” he said.

A spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the federal government does not have specific data on the relationship between texting and crashes, but the Virginia Tech study found that truck drivers were 23 times more likely to have a crash or a close call if they were texting.

A study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released July 27 found that 87% of drivers thought texting or emailing while driving was “a very serious threat to their safety.”

American Trucking Associations President Bill Graves praised DOT’s announcement, saying “eliminating distractions, including those caused by text messaging, will greatly improve the safety of all motorists.”

However, the trucking group is concerned that necessary technology might be swept into the effort to eliminate distractions.

“We’re walking a bit of a fine line here,” said Dave Osiecki, ATA vice president of safety, security and operations. “We don’t want to advocate for wholesale use of systems that can be used to text or communicate or read, but there are some limited, legitimate uses that we’re trying to protect.”

For example, Osiecki said truckers occasionally can receive urgent text messages from their dispatchers through onboard computing systems about delivery or route changes.

“Drivers need information, and the easier it gets to them—if it is a voice fashion, not a text fashion, that’s better, but in some cases drivers do get limited text information on lots of different systems,” he said.

ATA officials said they expect to be invited to the summit.

Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told Transport Topics that the issue of distracted driving was a difficult one to address, given the proliferation of technology available for vehicles.

“The larger problem is that there are all these devices that are coming into our vehicles that hold the potential to be a distraction,” Rader said. “It’s tough to know how we put this problem back in the bag, and it’s only going to get more acute.”

However, he said IIHS wasn’t sure an outright ban was the right solution, or even possible, because of enforcement issues.

“With most traffic safety problems . . . there’s a pretty straightforward legislative solution, and with distractions like this, there really isn’t a straightforward legislative solution,” he said.

Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, also was skeptical about a ban on texting.

“We don’t think there’s any single countermeasure that’s going to work, so there’s a combination of things that need to be done,” she said. “There’s a lot of attention on texting bans, but we think those laws are very hard to enforce.”

Harsha said there are technologies that could be employed to curb texting, but she also cited “employer policies” relating to texting and driving.

“It is in an employer’s self-interest to have a policy banning that,” she said.

Osiecki said that “most responsible fleets have policies against” reading messages, but he added that some companies allow it “for very good reasons,” citing team operations where presumably the team member not driving would read the message.

Transport Topics, 8/10/2009