I just returned from the National Distracted Driving Summit in Washington DC. Here is my take on things.
Driver distraction is certainly on the radar of the federal government. Both Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis gave presentations and this year Secretary LaHood was in attendance for the entire summit (he skipped out after the introduction last year). We also heard from legislators that are concerned about the issue. Secretary LaHood's message is that you should keep your eyes on the road, hands on the wheel, and your phone in the glove box. Sounds a lot like the Car Talk message: "Hang up and Drive!"
Good advice, but is it too little, too late? Have we become so addicted to the technology that we can't unplug? And are we focusing on yesterday's technology and not dealing with the broader issues? We heard several reports of people using Facebook while driving (and the auto manufactures have plans to let you do this with voice commands - now that's all we need...). I heard several people expressing these concerns and there were few concrete proposals to stem the driver distraction tide on our roadways. Realistically, we are losing ground on technology-induced driver distraction.
The following quote relayed to the summit from a recent automotive show sums up the problems we are facing:
"The company that can accommodate as many different mobile devices as possible, and integrate them in the car - they're the guys who are going to win long term."
Like last year, there was a heavy focus on the text messaging while driving. There are now 30 states that have laws prohibiting the activity (and it is expected that it will be prohibited in all states in the next two years). In fact, we heard from the Secretary of Labor that a company that requires of expects their workers to text while driving is considered to be in violation of OSHA regulations.
But the narrow focus on texting while driving is problematic. Sure enough, texting while driving is dangerous, but there aren't as many people doing it (because most people realize that it is CRAZY!). Unfortunately, the number of people texting while driving is growing, but the National Safety Council estimates that it only accounts for about 3% of crashes today.
Almost completely missed by the conference is cognitive distraction. The folks at NHTSA aren't even sure that it exists! Or, if it does, how to study it! I don't know why the folks at NHTSA can't get a grip on cognitive distraction - perhaps it is an "inconvenient truth" that complicates business models of automobile manufactures. Thankfully the National Safety Council was there to remind people that 25% of all crashes are associated with talking on the phone.
Incidentally, I've become a fan of the National Safety Council - they call it like they see it. And, if you'd like to read about cognitive distraction, you can read a new review chapter that I've written on cognitive distraction while multitasking and you can read a white paper on the issue from the National Safety Council.
We did hear about an innovative police enforcement project in Syracuse NY that cut cell phone use by over 50%. It didn't take sophisticated technology to cut usage, just good old-fashioned police work. As anyone who has driven for a period of time knows, it is trivial to identify the drivers who aren't paying attention to the road. This kind of concerted action really could change behavior (they got about 80% convictions, so the courts helped in keeping on message). Contact Officer Shannon Tice from the Syracuse Police Department for information on how to cut cell phone usage in your community.
One of the strongest messages can from Jennifer Smith from the victim's advocacy group Focus Driven. She called the automakers on the carpet for their rush to make the car a mobile electronic device for entertainment and communication. I'll post more of Jennifer's comments in a later post.