ITD News
Associated Press
News Link

Fiery crash leads to distracted driving concern

A authorities say the problem goes beyond just talking on the phone

By Lisa Grace Lednicer
The Oregonian

Just before he triggered last month's fatal crash on Interstate 405, police say, Michael J. Meek was juggling multiple tasks: driving his tractor-trailer rig, fumbling around for a loose cassette tape and dialing his cell phone.

The fiery wreck highlighted a troubling trend. Drivers, eager to wring as much productivity out of their time on the road as possible, distract themselves with phone calls, eating and other chores that steal their concentration from where it belongs -- on the road.

Although some see banning drivers from using cell phones as the solution, police, legislators and highway safety experts say the issue of distracted driving is much broader.

"You're not going to stop people from using cell phones," said Portland police Traffic Division Cmdr. Mike Garvey. His team investigated the I-405 crash, which killed two motorists.

"People are distracted reading the paper, using their cell phones and eating hamburgers. Where does it end?"

Distracted driving has been a problem since car manufacturers began installing radios in vehicles in the mid-1930s. But the recent proliferation of high-tech, car-friendly gadgets such as portable phones, DVD players and electrical outlets that can turn a vehicle into a rolling office has led to a flurry of laws, education campaigns and studies emphasizing the consequences of inattention.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, driver inattention is responsible for 25 percent to 30 percent of police-reported crashes, or about 1.2 million crashes a year. A University of North Carolina study last year financed by AAA showed that drivers were most likely to wander into another lane when eating, talking or reaching for something.

Meek, according to police, was attempting to check his phone voice mail seconds before the crash. He also told police he was distracted after a cassette fell from his dashboard and he started looking for it. Police cited Meek, 31, of Washington for careless driving, which usually carries a $300 fine but falls short of a criminal charge.

Most attempts to curb driver distraction have focused on cell phones, probably because it's easier than trying to ban food or to prevent adults from quieting unruly children, said Troy Costales, an administrator in the transportation safety division of the Oregon Department of Transportation.

"I don't think we can go through the workday without spending some portion being distracted," he said. "I'm sure every one of us can go someplace and not remember what we did for the last half-mile. It's a very common occurrence."

About two dozen cities and counties have passed ordinances prohibiting the use of handheld phones while driving. In the past four years, all 50 states have considered such bans, but only New York and New Jersey have outlawed the practice, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some states also are beginning to discuss bans on video screens placed within drivers' eyesight.

Attempts to curb driver distraction in Oregon haven't gotten very far. Last session, state Sen. Charles Starr, R-Hillsboro, introduced a bill that would have made distracted driving an offense, but it never made it out of committee. Rep. Bob Jenson, R-Pendleton, introduced a bill that would have made it a crime to drive while using a cell phone, with a penalty of as much as $150. It, too, died in committee.

Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches, said increasing penalties for careless driving might discourage commuters from driving while distracted, but he doesn't think an outright ban on cell phones is a good idea.

As technology improves, he said, more drivers will invest in phones that won't require them to take their hands off the steering wheel. Before lawmakers address the issue, Metsger said, he wants to see statistics on how often cell phone use contributes to crashes.

According to the state Transportation Department, of the 48,282 reported crashes in 2002– the most recent year for which crash data are available – cell phone use was a factor in six deaths. By contrast, alcohol use while driving contributed to 163 deaths.

"The best message to drivers is, don't use your cell phone; don't play with the radio," said Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Administration, a nonprofit group that represents states' highway safety interests. "Driving is a complex task."