A authorities say the problem goes beyond
just talking on the phone
By Lisa Grace Lednicer
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."