Skip to content

Posts from the "Distracted Driving" Category

5 Comments

Flawed Handheld Phone Bans Don’t Stop Distracted Driving

Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy Press Conference April 2013 044

Bonnye Spray lost her 17-year-old daughter in a distracted driving car crash. Photo: Calvin Fleming, via Flickr

University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan, over at the New York Times’ Economix blog, dug up a 2012 study by Cheng Cheng of Texas A&M University that tells the world nothing new about the currently confused state of laws against distracted driving, and in particular bans on handheld phone use. “Perhaps lawmakers overestimated the benefits of regulating this sort of driver behavior,” Mulligan writes. Or perhaps lawmakers didn’t pass laws that effectively protect vulnerable road users from dangerous, distracted drivers.

What Mulligan doesn’t mention is that distracted driving hardly stopped when today’s loophole-ridden and inconsistently enforced laws banned only the most obvious forms of distracted driving. Nor does Cheng’s paper make a convincing case that the newer, broader bans on texting while driving won’t save lives.

Cheng’s study, covering 2004-2010, even references earlier studies from the likes of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that show that today’s laws, which largely allow drivers to use phones via hands-free devices, have no basis in fact and would not be expected to save lives. As a 2009 meta-study cited by the National Safety Council put it: “Current research does not support the decision to allow hands-free phone use while driving.” Whether a driver controls the phone using her or his hands, through a headset, or through the car stereo, makes no difference: any driver using a phone is a distracted driver.

So why do state hand-held bans not work? Inconsistent policies, inadequate enforcement, and a purely symbolic focus on one small class of distractions (the hand-held phone) have hobbled most state bans from the very start. Lobbyists for powerful industries, like mobile phone carriers, consumer electronics makers, and now automakers keen on selling cars with built-in voice controls, focused initial bans on handheld phones while leaving loopholes for profitable add-on devices like Bluetooth hands-free sets. Enforcement officials have similarly fixated upon this easily-spotted group. A patchwork of state laws, with a majority of states only recently banning text messaging for all drivers, and the perception of scant enforcement leave most American drivers confused, or indifferent, about the bans.

Read more…

38 Comments

Be Evil: Driving While Using Google Glass Should Be Legal, Says Google

A San Diego woman had her distracted driving ticket overturned last month because a judge rules police couldn't prove her Google Glasses were on while she was driving. Photo: San Diego Union Tribune

A San Diego woman had her distracted driving ticket overturned last month because a judge ruled police couldn’t prove her Google Glass device was on while she was driving. Photo: San Diego Union Tribune

Google Glass: Buying one will set you back $1,500. It makes even the most attractive people look ridiculous. It may or may not be the future of mobile technology.

A handful of states are trying to get out ahead of any risk this product might present to public safety. Bills are bubbling up in eight states would ban the use of Google Glass while driving.

Meanwhile, Google (corporate motto: “Don’t be evil“) is actively lobbying against such legislation in Illinois, Delaware, and Missouri. In Illinois, according to Reuters, Google has hired Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s former political director, John Borovicka, to try to defeat the measure. The Illinois legislature is expected to vote on it this spring.

California courts have already seen a case involving Google Glass. Last month a San Diego woman’s distracted driving ticket was overturned because a judge ruled that police couldn’t prove the device was on at the time.

Google has been arguing that legislation preventing the use of the technology while driving would be premature, since there are a limited number in circulation, Reuters reports. There are about 10,000 Google Glass devices being tested nationwide and they will likely start being sold to the general public sometime this year.

But regardless of how many Google Glass units are out there, the science on distracted driving is clear. Thousands of people are killed each year in the U.S. because of distracted drivers. People can’t safely use hands-free devices while driving — the human brain just isn’t wired for multi-tasking. So why should states put lives at risk by letting people use internet-enabled eyewear while they’re behind the wheel of a multi-ton machine?

10 Comments

Driving Apps Are Incompatible With Safe Driving

Transportation apps aimed at drivers are increasingly ubiquitous. There are apps to help people find a parking space, or to allow drivers to report a pile-up on the interstate to other drivers in real time.

Waze, an app that encourages drivers to enter real time data about road conditions, just sold to Google for $1.1 billion. Image: Waze

Waze, an app that encourages drivers to enter real time data about road conditions, just sold to Google for $1.1 billion. Image: Waze

But as Ryan Holeywell at Governing Magazine recently pointed out, these apps pose a serious danger to the public. We know texting and driving is deadly. And the truth is, using a cell phone app is no different. According to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, any number of “secondary activities” that distract from the cognitive task of driving present a serious safety risk.

Holeywell reached out to some safety experts, and the consensus is that using driving apps while driving is a very bad idea. “Our advice for motorists continues to be not to use your cellphone while you’re driving — for any purpose,” says Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

App makers defend their products by saying they can be used hands-free. But that overlooks the actual source of distractedness — it’s our minds, not our hands:

David Strayer, a University of Utah psychology professor who conducted a landmark distracted driving study for AAA last year, says voice commands don’t necessarily improve safety because it’s not just hands removed from the wheel that pose a risk — it’s the mental distraction that comes with focusing on tasks other than driving. Turn-by-turn directions can improve safety, Strayer says, so long as drivers enter the address before they start moving and don’t use the devices while they’re driving. If you try to input any information on the go — whether by voice or by hand — Strayer says, “Watch out.”

According to the National Safety Coalition, use of hands-free devices still involves mental multi-tasking which causes drivers to have “difficulty monitoring their surroundings, seeking and identifying potential hazards, and responding to unexpected situations.”

Right now, however, most state laws regarding distracted driving simply ban texting and driving. And that means apps like Waze — a navigation app that encourages users to provide real-time updates about collisions and other road conditions — are a-ok in the eyes of the law.

14 Comments

Distracted Driving Is Claiming the Lives of More Pedestrians and Cyclists

Pedestrian fatalities attributed to distracted driving increased significantly between 2005 and 2010. Image: Public Health Reports

Total traffic deaths have declined nationwide in recent years, but the same has not held true for the most vulnerable people on the streets: cyclists and pedestrians. In 2011, 130 more pedestrians were killed in traffic than the year before, a 3 percent increase, while 54 more people lost their lives while biking, an increase of 8 percent. The same year, overall traffic deaths declined 2 percent.

As for the reasons why, good data has been scarce, but that hasn’t stopped major media from blaming victims for “drunk walking” or “distracted walking.” Now a new study published in Public Health Reports, the journal of the U.S. Public Health Service and the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, reveals that distracted driving — particularly driving while texting — partially explains the rising death toll.

A research team from the University of Nebraska Medical Center examined crash records from every fatal collision tracked by the Fatality Analysis Reporting System between 2005 and 2010. They found that the rate of bike and pedestrian fatalities in which distracted driving was listed as a factor increased sharply over that time period.

Pedestrian deaths attributable to distracted driving rose from 344 in 2005 to 500 in 2010, significantly faster than overall population growth. Annual bicyclist deaths caused by distracted driving rose from 56 to 73 over the same period. Together pedestrians and bicyclists accounted for about one in 10 traffic fatalities that resulted from distracted driving, researchers found.

Distracted driving was defined to include anything from tending to a child to tuning the radio or eating while driving. Cell phone use was a major culprit, cited by police in 18.6 percent of the distracted driving deaths involving pedestrians and cyclists.

“The problem is that pedestrians and cyclists have little protection on the roadways,” Fernando Wilson, an associate professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and one of the study’s authors, told the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, sponsor of the study. “Evidence suggests that separating non-motorized travel from motorized travel, through bike lanes or other redevelopment efforts, could greatly reduce deaths.”

21 Comments

AAA: Hands-Free Devices Don’t Solve Distracted Driving Dangers

Researchers at the University of Utah and AAA found that using hands-free electronic devices and on-board technology can cause dangerous levels of driver distraction. Image: AAA

Distracted driving killed 3,331 people on American streets in 2011, yet car manufacturers continue to outdo each other to add more infotainment distractions in their vehicles. These systems are expected to increase five-fold by 2018, according to AAA. Carmakers seek to show their commitment to safety by making their distractions – onboard dinner reservation apps and social media, for example – hands-free. But a growing body of research indicates that there is no safe way to combine driving with tasks like dictating email or text messages.

AAA recently teamed up with experts at the University of Utah to conduct the most in-depth analysis to date of the impact of cognitive distractions on drivers’ performance. They found that some hands-free technologies, like voice-to-text email, can be far more dangerous than even handheld phone conversations. Unlike previous studies, they also found that conversations with passengers can be more distracting than those on the phone, but only if the passenger is kept unaware of what’s happening on the road.

The researchers had subjects first perform a series of eight tasks, ranging from nothing at all to usage of various electronic devices to something called OSPAN, or operation span, which sets the maximum demand the average adult brain can handle. For the OSPAN, the researchers gave subjects words and math problems to recall later, in the same order, as a way to “anchor the high end of the cognitive distraction scale developed by the research team,” according to AAA’s Jake Nelson.

The more mental energy an activity requires, the more it slows drivers' reaction time. Image: AAA

The subjects then performed these eight tasks while operating a driving simulator, and then while driving on residential streets in an “instrumented” vehicle that captures information about the driver’s eye movements and brain activity.

In each environment, researchers studied how the additional tasks added to subjects’ “cognitive workload” and diminished their eye movements. They found that as drivers devote more mental energy to other tasks in addition to driving, the less observant they become, and the more they fail to scan for roadway hazards.

This bolsters the conclusions of previous experiments: that when drivers are mentally distracted by some other task, they get tunnel vision. They keep their eyes fixed on the road in front of them to the exclusion of everything else — the rear-view mirror, side mirrors, and “safety critical roadside objects” and “cross traffic threats” — such as pedestrians.

The AAA study also found that greater “cognitive workloads” slow drivers’ reactions to events like a ball rolling in front of the car and a kid running out to catch it. (Reaction times were measured with the simulator, not the instrumented vehicle driving on real streets.)

The researchers conclude that hands-free communications can be significantly more distracting and dangerous for drivers to engage in than passive tasks like listening to music:

Read more…

6 Comments

Pretty Please: U.S. DOT Asks Carmakers to Limit Onboard Distractions

Is two seconds enough time for this guy to avoid hitting the child in front of his car? Image: Fast Lane

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s signature issue has been distracted driving. He’s spent the last four years amplifying the heartbreaking voices of those who have suffered the consequences of this highly dangerous habit. The stories of the needless loss of so many people, especially children and teens, are tragic.

Clearly, it’s time to take decisive action to stop distracted driving.

But apparently it’s not clear to everyone. Automakers have only upped the distraction ante, putting touch screens in their cars with more and more features — GPS, fuel efficiency monitoring, audio and climate controls, limitless apps, and finally, social media. How did we ever live without making dinner reservations or updating our Facebook status while driving?

And how do our anti-distraction heroes at U.S. DOT respond? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is issuing a short list of voluntary guidelines they’re asking carmakers to adopt, to discourage “the introduction of excessively distracting devices in vehicles.”

Remember the good old days, when drivers' only distractions were fiddling with the radio dial and telling kids they weren't there yet? Photo: Fast Lane

In LaHood’s words, they include:

  • Limiting — to 2 seconds at a time and 12 seconds total — the time drivers must take their eyes off the road to operate in-car technology;
  • Disabling texting, social media, and web browsing features unless a vehicle is stopped and in park; and
  • Disabling video-based calling and conferencing unless a vehicle is stopped and in park.

According to Distraction.gov, a project of U.S. DOT, the 4.6 seconds it takes to send or read a text message is long enough to drive the length of entire football field at 55 mph, and looking at your phone is like driving that football field blindfolded. “It’s extraordinarily dangerous,” the website says. But NHTSA’s two second rule still accepts the idea of drivers speeding down almost half a football field blindfolded.

Read more…

10 Comments

CDC: Americans Drive Distracted Waaaay More Than Europeans

Adults aged 18–64 who said they had talked on their cell phone while driving in the past 30 days, by country. Image: CDC

If you’ve been on a U.S. street anytime in the past few years, it comes as no surprise to hear that way too many Americans are yammering away on their cell phones — or worse, OMG’ing and LOL’ing with their friends on text and email — while driving. A new report from the CDC — from their ”Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” — shows just how bad the American habit is.

Nine-year-old Erica Forney was killed by a distracted driver while riding her bike in 2008. Photo: Distraction.gov

The CDC looked at 2011 data on distracted driving rates in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States and found that people in the U.S. are by far the worst offenders. Of all the Europeans surveyed, the Portuguese most closely mirrored our dangerous ways.

More than two-thirds (68.7 percent) of U.S. adult drivers (aged 18–64) admitted in surveys to talking on their cell phones while driving at least once in the past 30 days. Almost a third (31.2 percent) admitted to reading or sending texts or e-mails while driving at least once during that time.

Our Portuguese counterparts had the highest rates in Europe for both of these behaviors – 59.4 percent said they’d talked on the phone and 31.3 percent had texted or emailed while driving in the past 30 days. But from there, the rates in Europe plummet. In the UK, just 20.5 percent admitted to talking while driving, and only 15.1 percent of Spaniards say they text and drive.

Read more…

7 Comments

In New NHTSA Report, Scarce Information on Causes of Pedestrian Deaths

The NHTSA wags its finger at distracted (and drunk) pedestrians but doesn't look too deeply into deadly driver behavior. Photo: Flickr / Alejandro Monsalve

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported last December that while overall traffic fatalities in the United States dropped in 2010, pedestrian deaths rose higher – up four percent in 2010 over 2009. Yesterday, the agency released some more detailed statistics about those crashes [PDF], but the report includes scarcely any data or analysis about the underlying causes of pedestrian deaths.

The report provides a set of tables about the prevalence of pedestrian fatalities under certain conditions — different times of day, different types of weather — but the only causal factor the NHTSA discusses is drunkenness. And remarkably, the agency implies that drunk walking, which is perfectly legal, is a bigger risk factor in pedestrian deaths than drunk driving:

Of the pedestrians involved, 33 percent had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 grams per deciliter (g/dL) or higher. Of the drivers involved in these fatal crashes, only 14 percent had a BAC of .08 g/dL or higher, less than two-fifths the rate for the pedestrians.

In the agency’s consumer advisory, released along with the new numbers, the NHTSA warns both pedestrians and drivers to avoid travel while under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

And in keeping with recent national coverage about the hazards of “distracted walking,” the advisory only mentions distraction by electronic devices in the pedestrian section, despite the fact that ending distracted driving is the signature cause of the current transportation secretary.

Certainly, it’s everyone’s responsibility to be safe, no matter what mode they take. But the stakes for pedestrians wouldn’t be so high if people weren’t driving around at high speeds in heavy cars on roads designed with little regard for the different ways people get around.

In fact, speed is the key factor — not just in pedestrian injuries and fatalities — but in discouraging walking. “The majority of crashes [resulting in] fatalities and serious injuries are related to high speed streets,” said Scott Bricker, director of America Walks. “In the National Walking Survey that America Walks did in partnership with Hunter College [PDF], we found that distracted driving and the speed of automobile driving were the two top concerns of people walking, and are what limits their walking.”

Read more…

No Comments

Transpo Bill Rumor: DeFazio Says Conference Committee ‘Gutted’ Bike/Ped

Here’s the latest transpo bill news that has filtered through the tight little seams in the armor around the conference committee.

Rep. DeFazio reports that there's a "deal" in the works to allow road widening to go forward, free of pesky things like public comments or environmental reviews. Photo: WyEast

First of all, the House voted last night on the two motions to instruct we mentioned last week: Rep. Diane Black’s criminally bad idea to cancel out important incentives for states to enact distracted driver laws, and Rep. Steny Hoyer’s pretty reasonable request that the House just vote on the Senate bill already.

Knowing what you know of the way Congress is working these days, I bet you know which one passed and which one failed.

That’s right, Hoyer’s motion failed 172 to 225, and Rep. Black’s plan to let more people die so that teens can text passed 201-194. O democracy, you are a cruel master. The good thing is that none of this is binding, as is evidenced by the fact that the House gave its thunderous approval to a motion to wrap up work by last Friday and it’s now Wednesday and, uh, there is no wrap on this work.

Which brings us to the next two MTIs the House will consider. One is from Rep. Mark Critz (D-PA) exhorting the conference to finish work by tomorrow, since they crashed their previous deadline. That motion will be voted on… tomorrow.

And Rep. Janice Hahn (D-CA) has a motion to preserve the language in the Senate bill creating a national freight program, complete with a strategic plan and policy, including goals to reduce environmental impacts, improve state of good repair, and improve the economic efficiency of the freight network. If there’s a way to kill such a sensible motion, I’m sure the House will find it. The freight program, we hear, has been one of many points of contention in the conference.

Hahn is also sponsoring a “Dear Colleague” letter urging her fellow lawmakers to support the Cardin-Cochran language in the Senate bill, allowing for some local control of federal dollars for transportation projects that make streets safer for walking and biking. The letter is co-authored by fellow California Democrat Lois Capps.

Meanwhile, Rep. Peter DeFazio, a stalwart champion of biking and walking, says he’s seenvery specific language there that they’ve gutted enhancements.” Whether it’s called Transportation Enhancements, Additional Activities, or Transportation Alternatives, he’s referring to the pot of money that funds bike/ped projects. DeFazio told Politico there’s bad news for environmental and community protections, too:
Read more…

No Comments

Deal Imminent?

We’re hearing reports that a deal on the surface transportation bill is imminent. We’ll let you know when we hear more. Could it be that the Walz Motion to Instruct lit a fire under the conferees?

Three more motions are about to be voted on, assuming peace doesn’t break out first. One, sponsored by Rep. Diane Black of Tennessee, would have spiked a section of the Senate bill that provides grant money to states that enact distracted driving bans. The Senate provision would reward states that enact bans on texting for all drivers and bans on all cell phone use for drivers under the age of 18. Speaking out against these bans is like coming out in favor of drunk driving. It just makes no sense. The motion calls for a study to be conducted instead.

Another MTI in the works, sponsored by Rep. Tim McKinley of West Virginia, would have instructed the conference committee to include in its final report the House provision devolving coal ash regulation to the states, so that the EPA can’t treat a hazardous substance as hazardous substance. The House will be voting on this one momentarily.

And the final motion, sponsored by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, calls on the House to take up the Senate bill.

We’ll keep you posted on news of these motions — and this supposed deal — as it breaks.