Keeping the Focus on Distracted Driving

By Nicholas Worrell

Fall is here. Shorter days and a new year are swiftly approaching. Distracted Driving Awareness Month, Global Youth Traffic Safety Week, and the long-daylight driving days of summer have come and gone. It seems a good time to ask what has the safety community achieved? Have we made any progress in eliminating distracted driving?

According to NHTSA “distracted driving is a dangerous epidemic on America’s roadways. In 2012, alone, 3,328 were killed in distracted driving crashes.”

With those facts in mind, we advocate for tougher laws, strict enforcement, and more education while looking warily at the growing challenges. Google has developed “Google Glass,” putting potentially distracting images and content right in front of our eyes. Apple recently launched its new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Snapshot all tempt users to make constant updates. And, automobile manufacturers are developing even more in-vehicle devices that can take the drivers attention away from the driving task.

Member Sumwalt using a safe driving simulator
Member Robert Sumwalt took the “Drive Smart Virginia” safe driving simulator for a test drive during his visit to the 2nd Annual Virginia Distracted Driving Summit.

We in the traffic safety community know that no call, no text, no update is ever worth a human life. So the question remains, how do we apply effective countermeasures against distracted driving?

Step one is to stay engaged in the fight. Earlier this month, I attended the Governors Highway Safety Association annual meeting. Several hundred of the nation’s top highway safety and law enforcement officials gathered in Grand Rapids to share, learn, and discuss the full spectrum of highway safety topics. We heard the grueling statistics about distracted driving, and yes, 44 states as well as the District of Columbia have now implemented all-driver texting bans. Two states, however, have yet to implement any measures to restrict drivers from using a personal electronic device in any shape or form.

At the GHSA meeting, we heard from award-winning reporter Matt Richtel, who discussed excerpts from his book “A Deadly Wandering.” He outlined the tragic distracted-driving crash involving Reggie Shaw. Mr. Richtel wanted us all to understand that anyone can be Reggie; anyone can be victims in a distracted driving crash. So that’s why we meet, to learn and then preach the message that highway crashes are not accidents.

A week later, I participated in DRIVE SMART Virginia’s  2nd Annual Virginia Distracted Driving Summit in Richmond where hundreds of industry leaders, scientists, educators, and law enforcement officials came together to share ideas, gather information, learn about best practices and forge solutions for Virginia and the nation. We heard an inspiring keynote address from NTSB Member Robert Sumwalt, who urged attendees to look beyond the concerns of just texting while driving or the use of handheld devices versus hands free, but to take action on all facets of distracted driving. He encouraged the audience to take the appropriate steps to help implement the NTSB’s recommendation calling for a ban on ALL portable electronic devices while driving.

Most touching was seeing the courage of the families of victims. Jennifer Smith lost her mother and is now taking action through Stopdistractions.org. Joel Feldman lost his daughter in a distracted driving-related accident and is active through his foundation EndDD.org.

These are examples of the steady and sure steps to reduce the injuries and deaths caused by distracted driving, but we will get there. That’s why we at the NTSB are staying engaged.

These events in Michigan and Virginia recharged my advocacy batteries. I took that energy to more than 600 young people at Maryland’s Notre Dame Prep School in Towson. I wasn’t there to give a list of statistics, but to share with them that this growing epidemic is destroying young lives like theirs, disrupting families, and leaving friends with lifelong scars. I said distracted driving is a bad habit that must be stopped and that changing the culture starts with them.

youth_group_seminar

It was the perfect opportunity to let the youth know that groups like the NTSB, GHSA, Drive SMART Virginia, and the families of victims are fighting to end distracted driving. However, we need them to join in the fight; we cannot do it alone. It will require young people to focus on the driving task, engage in peer-to-peer safety activities and school programs, and to speak up if they see someone driving distracted, even if it’s their parents.

The truth is we can attend conferences, meetings, write blogs and issue statements, but we all know that actions speak louder than words. Eliminating distracted driving and distraction in transportation is not a domestic, community or neighborhood problem; it’s a global problem that will require a global response. The battle must be steady and continuous and requires all of us to stay engaged.

Nicholas Worrell is a Safety Advocate in the NTSB Office of Communications.

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