Looking back, but yet ahead

By Robert Sumwalt

It was February 1, 2002 – ten years ago today when a Ford Explorer Sport vehicle veered off the left side of the outer lanes of Interstate 95/495, crossed over the median, climbed up a guardrail and flipped – landing on top of a minivan traveling southbound. Subsequently, another vehicle ran into the minivan. The result – five fatalities and one adult who sustained minor injuries.

It was supposed to be a happy day – the driver of the Ford Explorer had bought the car earlier that day. And at the time of the accident, the young driver had been following a friend to his house. During the trip, the two engaged in two cell phone conversations, the second one initiated when the friend lost track of the Ford Explorer and called to find her. Through our investigation of this tragic accident, the NTSB concluded that the Explorer driver’s inexperience combined with her use of a cell phone contributed to the accident. We recommended that States ban the use of interactive wireless communication devices by drivers in the first and second licensing stages.

We focused on young drivers back then because we knew that young drivers in particular needed to stay focused on the driving task. Their inexperience and immaturity make an already complicated endeavor all the more challenging, and the added distraction of a cell phone doesn’t help. This is still true today and perhaps all the more critical. As a father of teenager, I know that our children love their portable electronic devices and that they use them everywhere – without fully understanding the consequences.

But since that accident in Largo, MD in 2002, some things have changed. For one, cell phone use has exploded. According to the wireless communications industry, we’ve gone from about 120 million wireless subscriber connections (roughly 40 percent of the population) to more than 320 million, more than one for every man, woman, and child in the United States. Moreover, there has been a lot more research on the dangers that cell phone conversations and distractions from other portable electronic devices pose to drivers. We know now that distraction from these devices is not just a teen problem; they can distract and lead to crashes for any driver.

Six weeks ago, the NTSB issued our strongest recommendation yet to curb distraction-related crashes. We called for a ban on the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices for ALL drivers. I tell my daughter not to use a cell phone while driving, but that’s not enough. Children learn their behaviors from what they see, so I also need to lead by example by keeping keep my hands on the wheel and my mind on the road. And I need to do my part to make the roads safer for myself and others by not driving distracted. As NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman has aptly said, “No call, no text, no update is ever worth a human life.”

Robert L. Sumwalt was sworn in as the 37th Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on August 21, 2006. He is a frequent contributor to the NTSB blog.

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