Eliminate Distractions

By Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg

The NTSB has investigated distraction-linked crashes in all modes of transportation. Our 2017 distracted driving roundtable, “Act to End Deadly Distraction,” made one thing very clear:

We don’t feel these losses in a statistical table. We feel them at the dinner table. We also don’t call them “accidents” because they are totally predictable.

More than 100 people die every day on our roads and highways, nine or ten of them per day in distraction-involved crashes alone. More than 1,000 people per day—391,000 in one year—are injured in distraction-involved crashes. And it’s certain that this number is greatly under-counted. Many of these injuries are life-altering, disfiguring and permanently crippling. My apologies for being graphic – but ask anyone who’s been involved whether the distraction that caused the crash was worth it.

Listen to stories told in our 2017 roundtable by survivor advocates. Or, simply ask around. It won’t take long to find someone with a story of a friend, business colleague or loved one lost to a distracted driver.

What too many of these crashes have in common is a portable electronic device – the universal cell phone. When the NTSB made its first recommendation about driver distraction by “wireless telephone” in 2003, cell phones were primarily just that: tools for making voice calls. Although some cell phones had keypads, the word “texting” does not appear in that early report.

In 2011, the NTSB recommended that the states ban non-emergency driver use of all portable electronic devices that did not support the driving task. To date, no state’s laws have gone that far. Why?

And since drivers look to the law for guidance, no state’s drivers have gone so far as to voluntarily stop driving while visually, manually, and/or cognitively distracted. Why?

Now, a second 2011 NTSB safety recommendation is becoming steadily more feasible: Safety Recommendation H-11-47. We recommended that CTIA—the wireless association, and the Consumer Electronics Association, encourage the development of technology that can disable portable electronic devices within reach of the driver when a vehicle is in motion (with the ability to permit emergency use of the device while the vehicle is in motion, and the capability of identifying occupant seating position so that passengers can use their devices).

Unfortunately, the recommendation has not been adopted, despite smartphones and apps that will allow the driver to opt out of calls and texts while driving. So, why hasn’t there been more action on this recommendation?

The best safety solution is always to design out the problem. Rather than just encourage people to do the right thing, don’t give them the opportunity to do the wrong thing… and possibly take a life or maim someone.

Don’t misunderstand, we endorse a solid tech solution, but such a solution won’t work in every situation. It must be a belt-and-suspenders effort, together with the familiar three-legged stool of highway safety (awareness, tough laws, and high-visibility enforcement).

This year many more loved ones will be lost to distraction, but surveys tell us that most people think distracted driving is a bad idea. Until, that is, we have to put our own phone down. Hypocritical? It couldn’t possibly happen to me – I’m too good a driver! The numbers prove otherwise.

Time, tide and tech wait for no man or woman, to coin a phrase. By the end of today a thousand more families will be dealing with tremendous loss and pain.

This month, the NTSB will host its third Roundtable on Distracted Driving: Perspectives from the Trucking Industry. During the roundtable, members of the trucking community, victim advocacy groups, the business community and legislators will come together to discuss the problem of distracted driving and potential countermeasures. We also hope to hear about new efforts to close Safety Recommendation H-11-47.

To kickoff Distracted Driving Awareness Month, on April 3, we will also host, with Impact Teen Drivers and the California Highway Patrol, the Western States Teen Safe Driving Roundtable to talk about the state of teen driving and the proven strategies for preventing teen-driving related crashes.  Now, what are you going to do about it?

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