Category Archives: Distraction

Eliminate Distracted Driving

By Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg

April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and we launched our 2021–2022 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements on April 6. It seemed only natural that we begin our Most Wanted List blog series with the item, “Eliminate Distracted Driving.”

Crashes involving distracted drivers killed 3,142 people in 2019—up nearly 10 percent from the year before. A staggering 400,000 people were injured, some seriously and permanently. These numbers are certainly significantly under-reported, given police don’t always examine phone records after a crash and, although the problem of distraction is not new, the potential for distracted driving has increased exponentially with the introduction of personal electronic devices (PEDs). With an estimated 294 million smartphone users in the United States, our phones and other PEDs are a constant temptation for nearly all drivers. Our PEDs continually demand our attention, and our brains reward us for responding to their demands.

Although awareness is the first step in avoiding your own distracted-driving crash, we don’t believe awareness alone is enough to eliminate the problem. In many respects, driving distracted is the same as driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol—each is a behavioral choice that can result in death and life-altering injuries, not only to the perpetrators, but to many innocent people, as well. Solving the problem will require not only raising awareness and educating the public, but also enacting laws and implementing high-visibility enforcement.

We have investigated numerous distracted-driving crashes where PED use and distraction, in general, had tragic consequences. For example, on August 5, 2010, in Gray Summit, Missouri, a truck-tractor was traveling slowly or had stopped behind traffic on Interstate 44. A pickup truck merged from the left to the right lane and struck the rear of the tractor, initiating the first in a series of three collisions. The pickup truck driver was texting and driving.

Two school buses approached the collision site: a lead bus carrying 23 passengers and a following bus with 31 passengers. The driver of the lead bus became excessively focused on a motorcoach that had pulled over onto the shoulder, and the lead bus struck the rear of the pickup truck, pushing it forward and overturning it onto the back of the tractor. Moments later, the second school bus struck the right rear of the lead bus.

Gray Summit crash scene, showing Volvo tractor and lead school bus. GMC
pickup is located between the two vehicles. The
following school bus is located at right rear of photo. (Courtesy of Boles Fire Protection District)

As a result of this crash, the driver of the pickup and one passenger seated in the rear of the lead school bus were killed. A total of 35 passengers from both buses, the two bus drivers, and the driver of the tractor sustained injuries ranging from minor to serious.

Education is critical to prevent distracted driving, particularly because there are still many myths out there about it. For example, drivers—and legislators—must understand that hands-free is notrisk free. People who would not dream of texting and driving or talking on a handheld phone while driving still take their chances when it comes to hands-free conversations. This purely mental aspect of distraction is called “cognitive distraction.” Additionally, many drivers believe they are good “multitaskers” and exempt from the dangers of distracted driving. The truth is humans can only focus on one task at a time. You can drive or you can use a PED, but you can’t do both safely. Look at this way: your brain is only a single-core processor, and there are no upgrades available.

There’s a big disconnect between the facts and many drivers’ actions. Drivers need to disconnect from devices while driving, except when using them for navigation. All phones have a do-not-disturb feature that can be enabled while you drive—use it!

It can take some drivers a long time to change their minds about risky driving behavior, despite mountains of evidence that a driving behavior is unsafe. In fact, some never do. And what about when drivers do change their behavior and choose not to drive distracted? All other drivers must make the same choice for the issue to totally disappear, because, unfortunately, even the most conscientious driver has limited ability to respond to the risks careless drivers expose them to. Passengers, and even people outside a vehicle, are relatively powerless against “the other guy.”

That’s why, in addition to awareness and education, we also need the right laws and enforcement to make real progress, just like we’ve done to address other risky driving behaviors in the past.

That’s why, in addition to education, we need legislation to combat this problem. Our recommendations, if acted upon, can further protect all road users—whether inside a vehicle or out—against distracted drivers by building attentive driving into the law. Banning texting while driving is a start. Texting is manually, visually, and cognitively distracting. We also support bans on handheld phone use while driving. Although we strive for bans on all nonemergency PED use that don’t support the driving task, and, as mentioned, even though hands-free isn’t risk-free, banning handheld phone use is a step in the right direction. We also believe that distracted driving should be the target of high-visibility enforcement, like impaired driving and seat belt use are.

There are those who believe it’s their right to use their phones whenever, however. But consider the risk-reward tradeoff—death, permanent injury to you or someone else, massive legal struggles, and for what? To tell someone what you had for lunch? To discuss a business deal? To text your spouse a reminder to pick up the dry cleaning? Think about it. Maybe you think you’re immune to the dangers of distracted driving. Maybe you think this message is geared toward all the other drivers on the road. Maybe you think the science doesn’t apply to you. Tens of thousands of similarly self-assured distracted drivers have thought the same and gotten it horribly—and irrevocably—wrong!

“Eliminate Distracted Driving” is on our 2021–2022 Most Wanted List because insisting on attentive driving will reduce injuries and save lives, pure and simple. Make the choice to drive attentively and encourage others to do the same. If that doesn’t feel like enough, consider supporting one of the many distracted driving advocacy groups that are working to eliminate this problem. When driving, no distraction is worth the risk.

NTSB Investigations involving Distracted Drivers

It’s Past Time to Think About Cognitive Distraction

By Member Jennifer Homendy

When you think of common ways drivers are distracted on the road, you probably think of talking or texting on mobile devices, eating, reading, or perhaps even putting on makeup or shaving. It’s easy to recognize that these risky behaviors are distractions. There are even laws on the books in several states that ban these sorts of distractions—particularly hand-held mobile phone use—so drivers know better than to do these things while driving (even if they do them on occasion anyway). Hands-free mobile phone use, on the other hand . . . that’s okay, right?

Not so fast.

Distracted driving causes an alarming number of deaths and injuries on America’s roads each year, and it has proven to be a hard problem to solve. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration say that 2,800 people died because of distracted driving in 2018 alone. And distraction is particularly dangerous for vulnerable road users; 400 pedestrians and 77 bicyclists were killed that year.

The United States has made huge improvements in reducing the number of deaths seen on our roadways since the 1960s and 1970s, but, over the past decade, we’ve stagnated in lowering the number of fatalities even further. We’ve greatly improved vehicle and road safety as well as seatbelt law adherence, and we’ve cut drunk driving deaths in half. But distracted driving continues to be an ever-problematic issue on our nation’s roadways. Even my very own friends—knowing what I do for a living—have recently tried to have calls or video chats with me while they were driving! 

Although, like all safety issues, we need to address distracted driving awareness and prevention year round, for 1 month each year, advocates turn up the focus. That’s how critical it is to saving lives. Vice Chairman Landsberg recently wrote a blog in recognition of Distracted Driving Awareness Month. A few months ago, I wrote a blog about my own story of being in a crash caused by a distracted driver. I pointed out that, short of full cell phone bans, drivers can make hands-free calls through Bluetooth, which is still a cognitive distraction.

Why is that important?

A 2011 study detailed three types of distraction:

  • Visual (taking your eyes off the road),
  • Manual (taking your hands off the wheel to hold something, like food or a mobile device), and
  • Cognitive (those distractions that cause a driver to take his or her mind off the primary task of driving safely, like making hands-free calls or even stressing about an important meeting).

Even when your eyes are on the road, simple cognitive distractions can impair your driving performance and diminish your reaction time. Many people don’t realize that cognitive distractions while driving can be like driving while impaired—both reduce your ability to react.

Nearly a decade ago, the NTSB issued a recommendation to all 50 states and the District of Columbia, calling for a ban on all nonemergency use of portable electronic devices for all drivers, which would include prohibiting hands-free cell phone use. Ever since then, we have been advocating for states to ban cell phones while driving, and “Eliminate Distractions” has rightfully been on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements since 2013. Although 48 states have banned texting while driving, no state has banned hands-free cell phone use. 

The National Safety Council and AAA, along with others, remind us that hands-free isn’t risk free. We need to think about and address cognitive distraction and its harmful consequences. When we’re behind the wheel, let’s make sure we keep our families and our roads safe by focusing on the primary task at hand—driving safely.

Joining Forces on Distracted Driving

The blog was co-authored by:

Bruce Landsberg, Vice-Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board

Lorraine Martin, President & CEO, National Safety Council

By now, we all should be aware of the deadly consequences of distracted driving. Yet, driving while distracted by cell phone use has become too common an occurrence on the nation’s roads. This must stop.

It has been nearly a decade since the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) called on the states and the District of Columbia to enact laws that prohibit the non-emergency use of cell phones by all drivers. It has been more than a decade since the National Safety Council (NSC) became the first nongovernment organization to call for a total cell phone use ban for all drivers. Yet, tragically, no state has implemented this life-saving measure. 

Between 2011 and 2018, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 25,926 people were killed and an estimated 2.4 million more were injured in distraction-affected crashes. While these numbers are staggering, we know that they don’t accurately reflect how big a problem distracted driving is because distracted driving-related crashes are, in fact, greatly underreported.

“Eliminate Distractions” is on the NTSB’s 2019-2020 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. We are calling on states, operators and industry, vehicle manufacturers, and the driving public to take action.

Together, NTSB and NSC have joined forces to urge the following immediate actions:

States: Enact laws that prohibit all cell phone use while driving—yes, even hands free. Laws must send a clear message to drivers that there is no safe way to use a phone while driving.

Employers: Establish strong transportation and driving policies that prohibit cell phone use by employees – no calls, no social media, no texts, no email while driving. The most effective safe driving policies go beyond merely prohibiting all cell phone use to include activities such as using infotainment systems while driving. Policies should also prohibit employees from contacting other employees when you know they will be driving. (Employers don’t have to wait for a state law to tell you to do this; be a leader in safe practices.)

Drivers (you and me!): Use your phone’s “do not disturb” feature. Place your phone out of reach or simply turn your phone off until you reach your destination. No call, no text, no update is worth your life or the life of someone else.

Manufacturers of portable electronic devices: Develop a distracted driving lock-out mechanism or application for portable electronic devices that will automatically disable any driver-distracting functions when a vehicle is in motion, but allows the device to be used in an emergency.

The NTSB and NSC are committed to eliminating preventable crashes caused by cell phone use. The research is clear: we cannot safely multitask behind the wheel. So, when you choose to drive distracted, you don’t just pose a risk to yourself, you are a risk to the safety of the others you share the road with.

October was National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, but we need to focus on this issue all year. We will continue in our fight and efforts to end the preventable crashes, injuries and fatalities caused by distracted driving. Join us in this commitment by acting responsibly and making attentive, distraction-free driving your goal when behind the wheel. We are aware of the problem; now let’s take action to prevent any more needless tragedies.

World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims

By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division

Sunday, November 15, is the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims. I’ve known many of you who have lost loved ones this way, and I’ve worked alongside many survivor advocates for years. Along with the courage and strength I’ve seen among these survivors, it’s plain to me that nobody who loses a loved one in a traffic crash needs a day of remembrance. For them, that remembrance is always there, no matter what day. The World Day of Remembrance is for the rest of us. It’s a time to reflect on these often preventable losses and work to prevent future ones from occurring. In 2020, it feels like we need this commemoration day more than ever. With the uncertainty of a global pandemic, far too many people are forgetting—or becoming numb to—the year-in, year-out toll that traffic crashes take on our country.

I was recently invited to speak on an International Road Federation panel on the topic, “Crashes: The Forgotten Pandemic.” I reminded participants of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s statement earlier this year when asked about the annual 40,000 US road deaths in America. He said that the COVID pandemic is emergent, but road crash deaths are a chronic condition.

However, although the condition is chronic, it’s not untreatable.

My talk touched on some of the ways that the road safety community is working to protect the most vulnerable road users: bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians. I also pointed out that, unlike COVID-19, the road crash pandemic strikes the young disproportionately. In fact, in the United States, from early in childhood to well into middle age, a young person is more likely to die in a motor vehicle crash than any other way.

The impact on young peoples’ lives from our acute COVID pandemic is incalculable. Students whipsaw between learning in person and on-line, with little certainty of what style comes next, and face restrictions on seeing friends. Yet, the far more pressing danger to a young person comes from the risks of speeding and of distracted, drowsy, or impaired driving. In fact, speeding crashes have increased markedly this year as the volume of traffic has decreased.

Remembrance is about honoring those we’ve lost. It’s also respecting those who, thankfully, are still with us. This World Day of Remembrance, we can respect the living and honor those lost by recommitting ourselves to practicing safe driving habits—some of which we may not have had the opportunity to use for a while. Before you get behind the wheel, make sure you’re rested and sober. Put the phone away. Don’t speed. With all the younger generations are doing to protect high‑risk loved ones from COVID, let’s do the same to lower their risk of dying in a motor vehicle crash. Let’s finally put both pandemics behind us.

Perform a Death-Defying Act Without Lifting a Finger!

By Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg

This blog will be short and, to some, a bit brutal. To mark the start of Distracted Driving Awareness Month, let’s have a talk. You’ve heard all this before but stay with me for just a moment.

Can we just stop?

Can we just stop killing and seriously injuring innocent people every day because we aren’t paying attention to the task at hand? A lot of innocent people. Let’s start with the statistics, then move to the human cost.

Every state—except Montana and Missouri—now bans texting while behind the wheel. Despite the many laws aimed at reducing distracted driving, people still do it. The carnage is significant. In 2018, nearly 3,000 people were killed and thousands more suffered life-altering injuries in distracted-driving–related crashes. And those are just the ones that we know about—there are lots of situations in which the police know what happened but not why, and the drivers don’t admit to having been distracted.

The science is clear: humans don’t multitask well. Take your eyes off the road for 3 seconds, and the odds of a crash go up significantly. A naturalistic driving study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that texting behind the wheel increases the risk of a crash or near crash by as much as 23 times. Don’t believe me? Take a moment and type “be home soon” on your phone. For most of us, it took about 3 seconds to key in that message. With each additional second, the odds of a crash go up exponentially. At 55 mph, a vehicle covers about the length of a football field in 3 seconds and is exposed to multiple hazards: trucks, cars, trees, light poles, bridge abutments, bicyclists, pedestrians. You’re also a threat to everyone nearby. We’ve got the data to back that up.

What’s that? You’ve been texting and calling while driving for years and haven’t had a crash? As Clint Eastwood asks in the movie Dirty Harry, “Do you feel lucky?” Your single datapoint means the fates have been kind so far. Consider this: every single driver (and there were thousands just last year!) who has had a distracted driving crash was 100% certain that it wouldn’t happen to them. Luck can only last so long.

There was another useful bit of advice from Eastwood in Dirty Harry, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” So do drivers! Every one of those distracted drivers last year would opt for a do-over if they could. Unfortunately, there are no do-overs. If you’re lucky enough not to be injured or killed because you were driving distracted, you might still be responsible for killing or maiming others. That selfish moment could mean serious jail time or a devastating lawsuit. Is that call or text message so important that it makes sense to risk another person’s life? How about your own life or freedom?

Distracted driving falls into the same category as driving under the influence. Many people used to drive a bit buzzed and think it was OK. Nowadays, the potential for jail time, license suspension, and a lot of cash out of pocket has deterred many from driving after drinking. The thing is, whether it’s impaired or distracted driving, the risks and results are the same. This selfish, voluntary, and unnecessary act can have preventable, deadly consequences.

So, can we just stop? Don’t take the risk; it’s not worth it. It can wait.

Eliminate Distractions is on the NTSB 2019-2020 Most Wanted List.