When the radio was introduce as a new-car feature, safety advocates began screaming about the potential for distraction. Then came the tape deck, the CD player, the MP3 player and the GPS.
But by far the biggest risk factor for distraction has been the cell phone. And now the smart phone. Credible studies show even hands-free devices result in significant cognitive distraction. However, it’s hand-held use and text messaging by drivers that the government has in its crosshairs. As our Boston injury lawyers reported recently, the feds are considering a nationwide ban on hand-held cell phone use by drivers.
As the Boston Globe reported, the National Transportation Safety Board believes we will continue to be at high risk until operating a vehicle — rather a boat, train or car — while using a cell phone becomes as taboo as drunk driving. Last year, two Hungarian students were killed in a duck boat accident in Philadelphia after being hit by a barge being tugged by a pilot reportedly on his cell phone. Locally, the 2009 Boston trolley accident that sent scores to the hospital was caused by an operator who was texting his girlfriend.
“Many people continue to think it’s just going to take a moment (to call or text),” NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said. “How do we change that mindset? Not just the NTSB, but all of us?”
Safety advocates hope drivers someday equate driving and using a cell phone with drunk driving or failure to wear a seat belt.
“Distraction is becoming the new DUI,” NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said. “This is going to reach epidemic proportions. It takes a generation or two to change it, but change is needed.”
In recent years the NTSB has been called in to investigate a number of commercial accidents, both on the water and in the air, that have been blamed on distracted drivers. Cases include a tug pilot who ground his vessel while texting in the Baltic Sea and a Northwest Airline pilot who passed his destination by 150 miles while using a laptop to complain about scheduling woes.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports 5,474 lives were lost and 448,000 were injured in accidents caused by distracted driving in 2009.
“These numbers show that distracted driving remains an epidemic in America, and they are just the tip of the iceberg,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
And the numbers are on the rise, even as the total number of traffic fatalities has reached a record low during the economic downturn. Today, an estimated 16 percent of all fatal accidents are blamed on driver distraction.