Wisconsin Traffic Safety Reporter: Safety Measures

High-profile texting related crashes and a graphic PSA from the United Kingdom have helped bring the dangers of texting while driving into the public spotlight.

This fall, USDOT hosted a two-day Distracted Driving Summit. Transportation secretary Ray LaHood, calling distracted driving a "menace to society," noted that in 2008 nearly 6,000 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted or inattentive drivers, and more than half a million were injured. The fatalities were 16% of all those killed in crashes that year. He said the administration will offer a series of recommendations to encourage congress, state governments and public to help reduce the hazard. President Obama has signed an executive order prohibiting federal employees from texting while driving. Separately, the federal government plans to ban texting by bus drivers and truckers who travel across state lines, and may also preclude them from using cellphones while driving, except in emergencies.

State legislatures have responded to the growing concern over cell phone use and texting while driving by passing a variety of new laws, including banning handheld cell phone use or texting by all drivers, or restricting cell phone use for a specific demographic, such as teens or school bus drivers. Surveys show that 80-90% of Americans support texting bans.

In each of the past several sessions, the Wisconsin Legislature has considered various bills designed to reduce the risk due to driver distraction while using cell phones and other electronic devices. These initiatives have seldom advanced very far. In the current session, once again, several bills are under consideration.

Research by the AAA Auto Club of Southern California published in September, shows that the texting while driving ban implemented in California appears to be helping. Before the ban, researchers observed 1.4% of drivers in Orange County were texting while driving: after the law took effect, this dropped to just 0.4%, a decline of about 70%

In Washington, D.C. at the end of July, several US senators unveiled new legislation that would ban anyone from texting on a cell phone or other personal electronic device while driving. The ALERT Drivers Act would require states to bar the sending of text or email messages while driving a car or truck, or else risk losing federal highway funds. In October, a different bill was introduced by Senator Jay Rockefeller to encourage states to enact laws restricting text messaging and cell phone use by drivers. Compliant states would qualify for additional federal funds and would maintain eligibility for federal traffic records improvement funds.

The Governors Highway Safety Association is the national organization that represents state highway safety agenceis. GHSA membership has enacted a new policy encouraging every state to ban texting behind the wheel. GHSA chairman Vernon F Betkey Jr. Who heads the Maryland Highway Safety Office, notes that the Virginia Tech study influence their membership's action. GHSA has concerns about enforcement and will support NHTSA's enforcement demonstration project in showcasing how states can effectively enforce a cell phone ban.

Highway safety laws are only effective if they can be enforced and if the public believes they will be ticketed for not complying, says Betkey. To date that has not been the case with many cell phone restrictions.

To combat the increasing problem of distracted driving, GHSA recommendations include:

Parents should:
Use GDL bans as another way to encourage their teens to drive safely & set a good example by not using a cell phone while driving.

Text messaging is growing at a phenomenal rate, especially with young people. GHSA's message to all drivers is clear: DON'T USE CELL PHONES OR OTHER ELECTRONIC DEVICES WHILE DRIVING, regardless of the current law. USDOT Secretary LaHood observes that "Every single time someone takes their eyes or their focus off the road, even for a few seconds- they put their lives and the lives of others in danger. Distracted driving is unsafe, irresponsible and, in a split second, its consequences can be devastating. " He suggests, we need a combination of strong laws, tough enforcement and ongoing public education to make a difference.

Material from the Wisconsin DOT

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