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Distracted Driving Summit: What to do about texting-while-driving?

Distracted Driving Summit eyes personal behavior; AAA sees a 'public health crisis'

By Matt Hamblen, Computerworld
September 30, 2009 03:21 PM ET

Computerworld - Technology and new laws may have a role in curbing dangerous vehicle accidents caused by distracted driving while texting or using a cell phone or a music player. But federal officials today also put a major focus on driver responsibility.

At the kick-off of a two-day Distracted Driving Summit in Washington, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that new laws or better police enforcement can't on their own end distracted. "You can't legislate behavior," LaHood said. "Taking personal responsibility for our actions [while driving] is the key."

At the conclusion of the summit tomorrow, LaHood plans to announce steps his department is taking to combat the problem of accidents caused by distracted driving. In addition to cell phones, GPS devices or music players such as iPods, electronic billboards beside the road are also seen as a distraction for drivers.

New research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that nearly 6,000 people died in vehicle crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver in 2008, LaHood said, about one-sixth of the 37,000 vehicle deaths reported last year. About half a million people were injured in distracted driving crashes, he said, adding that on any given day in 2008, more than 800,000 vehicles were driven by someone using a handheld cell phone.

To date, he noted, some 200 bills addressing distracted driving have been submitted to legislatures in 46 states.

However, experts on the first of several panels at the summit said distracted driving is a complex issue, noting that police officers often vary in how they report distracted driving. Quite often, police at crash scenes must rely on what drivers say they were doing just before a crash, and with a greater focus on the dangers of texting while driving, many drivers may not admit they were texting at the time, they noted.

"Drivers are less likely to admit distraction," said John Lee, a professor in industrial and systems engineering at University of Wisconsin in Madison. "Unlike alcohol that leaves a trace, there's no evidence."

As such, it's hard to quantify the number of crashes caused by distractions.

Lee pointed to evolving technology called "guide collision warning systems" that could help drivers "expand their field of view" to limit the impact of distractions. Those collision warning systems, now showing up in some expensive passenger vehicles, can give a drivers feedback if they're driving too close or facing another imminent danger. He said that such technology could also be used later to help a driver review when he was close to an accident at the end of a trip to help avoid similar situations in the future.

Warning technology is more promising than existing systems, which can detect when a car is in motion and shut down a cell phone or send all calls to voicemail, Lee said.

Indeed, texting while driving is the worst of the current crop of distractions, Lee said. "Texting [while driving] is the perfect storm that brings together visual, manual and cognitive demands," he said. By comparison, there is still a mental distraction when talking on the phone, even hands-free. However, the risks associated with texting are roughly 15 times greater than when talking on a cell phone while driving, he said. That's based on the amount of time a driver looks away from the road or is actively texting.

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