Let’s Keep Our Minds On The Road

By Robert L. Sumwalt

As Dr. Mary Pat McKay pointed out in yesterday’s Safety Compass blog, April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month.  As part of our effort to draw attention to this critical transportation issue, I had the opportunity to participate recently in a one-on-one interview with highway safety advocate David Wallace.

Further, last Wednesday I had the privilege to represent the NTSB during a webinar on distracted driving with the National Safety Council (NSC). David Teater, Senior Director of Transportation Initiatives for NSC, highlighted the fact that there is no such thing as “multi-tasking.” Our brains are simply not equipped to process the requirements of the driving task while focusing on other tasks – namely, talking on a cell phone. In my webinar presentation, I highlighted that NTSB’s interest in distracted driving extends back more than a decade, beginning when the board investigated a 2002 accident involving a 20 year-old driver who had just purchased her Ford Explorer mere hours earlier. She was driving to a friend’s house to show off her new purchase, and while talking on a cell phone, lost control of the vehicle. She crossed the median of an interstate highway and collided head-on with a Ford Windstar minivan. Five lives were lost.

In the intervening years, we have continued to investigate accidents related to cell phone use, across all modes of transportation. These investigations crystallized in a 2010 accident in Gray Summit, Missouri. As a result of this accident, NTSB recommended that all 50 states adopt laws prohibiting the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers. The science is clear: whether a conversation is taking place using a hand-held phone or a hands-free device, the unacceptable and dangerous cognitive distraction to the driver is the same.

As Dr. McKay noted in her blog post, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 17% of serious roadway crashes involve distractions. Every single highway accident is tragic, but these are even more so when you realize that they could have been prevented. Thousands of lives could be saved on our nation’s roads and highways every year if we would simply choose to keep our eyes – and our minds – fully on the road.

Please, hang up the phone. Just drive.


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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