The National Safety Councile wants a total ban on driving and cell phone use.

The National Safety Council wants a total ban on driving and any type of cell phone use.

Next week when the Distracted Driving Summit called for by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood opens, the debate will intensify around what to do about a growing public safety problem – the role of electronic devices in an increasing number of auto accidents.

Almost 42,000 lives are lost annually on U.S. Highways. And traffic crashes are the primary cause of incapacitating injuries, as well as the number one killer of Americans under the age of 34. In addition to staggering psychological costs, the annual economic loss to society because of these crashes, defined by lost worker productivity, medical costs, and insurance costs, among others, is estimated at more than $150 billion. No one seriously debates that there is a need for an improvement in motor vehicle safety.

Getting unsafe vehicles off the road is now broadly recognized as common sense more than forty years after the Senate  conducted hearings that led to auto safety legislation in 1967, which automakers fought all the way. Now a new deadly threat is emerging from the practices of automakers and sellers of electronic devices. No surprise given the history, automakers are once again fighting rules that could potentially eliminate a substantial number of accidents.

Driver inattention is a leading cause of traffic crashes, responsible for about 80% of all collisions, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Moreover, leading the way in this lack of visual and cognitive attention is cell phone use – either hand-held or hands-free. With more than 100 million people each day practicing dangerous distracted driving behavior, the fatalities and accidents such behavior causes is growing. There is also the growing use of in-vehicle telematics and “infotainment systems” that clearly distract drivers.

Particularly dangerous is the widespread use of cell phones. The issue is not the type of phone a driver uses, rather it is the mental distraction caused by the conversation itself. That’s the reason earlier this year the National Safety Council urged a total ban on using cell phones while driving after conducting further studies that confirmed previous research on just how dangerous cell phones are.

NSC said cell phone use while driving contributes to 6% of crashes, or 636,000 wrecks, 330,000 injuries, 12,000 serious injuries, and 2,600 deaths each year. NSC estimates the annual financial toll of cell phone-related crashes at $43 billion. Simply put cell phone use is as dangerous as drunken driving.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade association of 11 car and light truck manufacturers including BMW Group, Chrysler Group, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Jaguar Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi Motors, Porsche, Toyota and Volkswagen, contends that hands-free phones are safe – but can supply no studies to support that assertion.

Telephone conversation impairs sustained visual attention

We Pay Attention!

We Pay Attention!

The problem with such an obviously self-serving position is that recent peer-reviewed research shows that holding telephone conversations disrupts one’s driving ability in a way similar to drunken driving. (Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 2008, 15 (6), 1135-1140 doi:10.3758/PBR.15.6.1135)

At this point, the fact that alcohol impairs driving performance is not in dispute. However, the assertion that participants talking on a mobile phone were also involved in more accidents than when they were not is troubling for automakers, cell phone suppliers and safety regulators, to say the least.

The theory invoked by the estimable authors of the study called “Telephone conversation impairs sustained visual attention via a central bottleneck” is one of selective attention, our ability to concentrate limited cognitive processing resources on certain stimuli while ignoring others.

In their own words: “Why does talking on a mobile phone disrupt a person’s driving ability? Strayer and Johnston (2001) suggested that telephone conversations reduce the amount of attention that can be devoted to the driving task, thus impairing performance. This is inferred from the fact that peripheral factors, such as motor interference from holding the phone, can be ruled out: Drivers were equally impaired, regardless of whether they were using a hands-free or handheld device.” (Strayer et al., 2006; Strayer & Johnston, 2001).

Such research is consistent with the latest studies on multi-tasking, which say that a multi-tasker does all things badly; it is better to do one thing at a time.

The only study produced thus far in the “death by cell phone debate” is one from the Ford Motor Company that purports to show its Sync technology and hands free cell phone use enabled by it is safe. Ford claims Sync reduces the level of distraction when drivers select a phone number or choose a song on their MP3 player compared with the same operations with hand-held cell phones and music players.

However, reducing the level of distraction is not the cure; eliminating it is.

Furthermore, from a scientific point of view the Ford study wouldn’t pass muster at the undergraduate level at a university, let alone serve as a policy-influencing document where the stakes are so high.

“We must act now to stop distracted driving from becoming a deadly epidemic on our nation’s roadways,” said Secretary LaHood this week when he announced the agenda for next week’s conference.

The Distracted Driving Summit will bring together leaders from around the country for “interactive sessions” on the extent and impact of the problem, current research, regulations, and best practices, among others. The two-day Summit will feature five panels – on data, research, technology, policy, and outreach – with a range of experts discussing each topic.

The Summit will begin with a context-setting panel where participants will examine the scope of the issue and the various distractions that exist, followed by a panel that will review currently available research. Panelists will also consider technology that can prevent the consequences of driver distraction.

Day two features a review of legislative and regulatory approaches for dealing with distracted driving; evaluations of the impact of such measures; and enforcement issues. Members of Congress and their staff will also have the opportunity to contribute to the discussion. will carry in depth reporting from the summit.

Safety experts we have spoken to recently are universally skeptical about whether the Congress will actually tackle the problem head on. However, we remain hopeful that a growing body of data will lead to changes that will save lives.

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