A pair of recent stories from Washington go a long way toward putting Oregon’s, and the nation’s, distracted driving problem in context: last week the National Transportation Safety Board formally called for a nationwide ban on “driver use of personal electronic devices,” according to the Washington Post. This came only a few days after new data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that “for all the criticism and new legal bans, texting by drivers just keeps increasing, especially among younger motorists,” according to a report filed by the Associated Press.
Both of the organizations are independent federal agencies. The NHTSA studies and promotes highway and traffic safety while the NTSB is charged with investigating transportation accidents of all types (i.e. not just cars and trucks).
The NTSB statement was particularly strongly worded, according to the Post, and followed the lengthy investigation of a crash last year in Missouri in which “a 19-year-old pickup driver sent 11 texts in the 11 minutes before the accident.” The paper adds that the NHTSA’s data show that in 2009 (the last year for which numbers are available) distracted driving resulted in 5000 deaths and half-a-million injuries on America’s roads.
In practical terms instituting any sort of nationwide ban on distracted driving will be difficult – though the federal government’s experience during the 80s and 90s in using highway funds as a lever to force states to mandate seat-belt use does, potentially, offer a useful model. The broader point, however, concerns the need to change attitudes at a very basic level. According to the Post, 35 states, including Oregon, now ban texting by drivers. A growing number (again, including Oregon) also restrict the use of handheld phones by anyone behind the wheel. The statistics will not really change, however, until people’s attitudes toward technology and its uses changes.
As any Portland distracted driving lawyer can attest, virtually everyone on the road believes him or herself to be a better-than-average driver. Laws like the Oregon distracted driving law are useful, but they, and their enforcement, are only steps – important steps, but steps nonetheless – on the road to real highway and traffic safety. Enforcing distracted driving laws is important, but the practice will not stop until people take real responsibility for their own actions.
AP via NBC4: More drivers texting at wheel, despite state bans
Washington Post: NTSB seeks nationwide ban on driver use of personal electronic devices
Distraction.gov – Official US Government site concerning distracted driving