Feds Signal Concern Over Drivers’ Cell Phone Use

The Obama administration has sent construction materials producers few positive messages regarding Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety

DON MARSH, EDITOR [email protected]

The Obama administration has sent construction materials producers few positive messages regarding Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety & Health Administration, and National Labor Relations Board policy priorities. Its Department of Transportation, on the other hand, is poised to add teeth to rules safety-wise producers have adopted to ban or limit drivers’ on-road use of cell phones while operating mixer and dump trucks, or other company vehicles.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will convene a late-September summit where senior department officials, legislators, safety advocates and law enforcement representatives will assess the dangers of text-messaging and other distractions behind the wheel. Noting that the summit will lead to a DOT action plan on distracted-driving hazards, Sec. LaHood emphasized, Laws aren’t always enough. We’ve learned from past safety-awareness campaigns that it takes a coordinated strategy combining education and enforcement to get results.

Among summit participants will be the American Trucking Associations, the leading voice for heavy-duty trucking interests in federal government affairs. The organization has advocated for policies that would minimize or eliminate driver distraction caused by using electronic devices while operating any type of motor vehicle. Its safety agenda contends that a) such devices hinder driver performance by taking the driver’s eyes off the road; and, b) drivers can become so absorbed in messages that their ability to concentrate on driving is impaired.

In addition to DOT measures to curtail distracted driving, ATA supports a Senate bill Û Avoiding Life-Endangering and Reckless Texting by Drivers Act of 2009 or ALERT Û introduced in late July by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), and Kay Hagan (D-NC). The group’s endorsement extends to safety objectives of the ALERT bill, calling for states to ban drivers’ writing, sending or reading text messages via a hand-held mobile telephone or other portable electronic communication device. States that do not comply with the legislation risk losing 25 percent of their federal highway funding. The association, however, will work to ensure that the bill does not inadvertently require states to outlaw use of truck cab fleet management systems that provide drivers limited but necessary cargo-related information.

Sec. LaHood’s summit announcement followed the release, also in late July, of AAA Foundation survey results indicating that 87 percent of motorists view text messaging or e-mailing while driving a serious threat to road safety. [Drunk driving was likewise identified by 90 percent.] Moreover, even among the 80 percent of survey respondents who rated distracted driving Û due to talking on a cell phone, texting, or e-mailing Û a very serious safety hazard, over two-thirds admitted to driving while talking on a cell phone, and 21 percent reported reading or sending a text message or e-mail behind the wheel in the past month.

Many motorists who would never consider drinking and driving think somehow it’s okay to text or e-mail while driving, says AAA Foundation President and CEO Peter Kissinger. We need to stigmatize distracted driving to the same degree as drunk driving in our culture, because both behaviors are deadly.

The AAA and DOT announcements further validate an early-2009 National Safety Council call for a ban on motorists’ use of hand-held and hands-free cell phones for voice or text messaging (applauded here in Drivers’ use of cell phones in an age of entitlement, March, page 4). For drivers who cling to the use of personal mobile communications devices while their vehicles are in gear, the message here or on the screen is clear: A train packed with road-safety proponents is leaving the station.