October 1, 2009

Distracted Driving A “˜Menace To Society’

Distracted driving has become a serious issue on the road as people become more and more attached to their cell phones and handheld devices, and less likely to put them down while driving, the Obama administration declared on Wednesday.

Officials are insisting that Congress and the public must work together to reduce the risk.

In a 2-day meeting called to brainstorm on ways to cut back on the use of mobile devices while driving, The Transportation Department announced that almost 6,000 people were killed and a half-million were injured just last year in collisions involving distracted drivers.

That also includes drivers texting and talking on their cell phones.

"To put it plainly, distracted driving is a menace to society," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. "Distracted driving is an epidemic and it seems to be getting worse every year."

The meeting brought together experts to take a closer look at the potentially fatal combination of driving while using cell phones, mobile devices, or any other distractions that could take the driver's attention from the road.

According to LaHood, he would make recommendations on Thursday that could result in restricting the use of all handheld devices while driving.

The meeting centered around the use of all mobile devices while driving, but participants mentioned that reaching into the back seat, applying makeup or eating could also be harmful distractions.

"I have nightmares about the last moments of my mother's life," said Greg Zaffke of Chicago, whose mother, Anita, was killed in May after being hit from behind by a vehicle driven by a woman painting her fingernails.

The issue is being monitored closely by Congress, while Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and other Democrats are pushing legislation that would make it mandatory for states to make it illegal to text or e-mail while operating a moving vehicle, or have 25 percent of their yearly federal highway funding taken away.

"We need every state to put safety first," Schumer told participants.

The government would learn from past efforts to cut back on drunken driving and urge motorists to use seat belts, pushing for a "combination of strong laws, tough enforcement and ongoing public education."

The exact numbers reported by the government were 5,870 people killed and 515,000 injured last year in crashes that involved at least one driver distraction being reported.

The fatality figures did not break down crashes by specific driver behavior. Safety officials generally identified cellphone use, texting, eating, talking to passengers and manipulating radio or vehicle controls as distractions.

Drivers under the age of 20 were involved in 16 percent of distracted-driver fatal crashes. Those ages 20 to 29 accounted for another 12 percent.

Texting while driving has been made illegal in eighteen states and the District of Columbia, and among seven states and the District driving has been banned while talking on a hand-held cell phone, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Many safety groups are seeking to make it a nationwide initiative to ban texting and using hand-held mobile devices while driving.

Researchers have tried to determine whether hands-free devices are safer than hand-held devices, but it was noted that hands-free devices still pose a threat of distraction if it required the driver to dial a phone or handle the device at all.

"I think it's important that we recognize that hands free is not risk free," said Dr. John Lee, a University of Wisconsin researcher.

There are also those who believe that laws banning hand-held cell phone use by drivers would be easier to enforce and cautioned that a complete ban could preclude technologies such as General Motors' OnStar, an in-vehicle system that alerts emergency rescue officials to a crash.

"You have to be really careful about unintended consequences of just saying we need a complete, total cell phone ban," said Dr. Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

Family members of victims are asking for a total ban by drivers and even suggested implementing technologies that would prevent the mobile device from receiving e-mails or phone calls while the vehicle is in moving.

"This isn't just a small problem. This is an epidemic," said Jennifer Smith of Grapevine, Texas. Her 61-year-old mother was killed last year in Oklahoma City by a young driver talking on a cell phone.


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