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2010 Distracted Driving Summit

Watch the 2010 National Distracted Driving Summit now. The presentations will also be online after the fact.


There has a lot been going on with Distracted Driving lately. The Secretary of Transportation is holding his second National Distracted Driving Summit this week to draw attention to the issue, share research and campaign best practices. Our advocacy director, Walter Finch, is there. Hopefully, he’ll have an opportunity to let people know about our efforts and research.

We also presented on Distracted Driving at the Pro-Walk/Pro-Bike Conference last week. We had a great panel with Carmen Hayes from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA,) Every Day from the Bicycle Alliance of Washington, and Dr. Roger Thompson, a Criminal Justice faculty member at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Thank you to all of them and to those who contributed to the very good discussion.

Finally, League President Andy Clarke has been busy on Distracted Driving recently, too. The National Journal asked its Transportation Experts to weigh in on Distracted Driving: “Are there reasonable limits on such laws’ scope, such as allowances for gridlock? Is there a solution for the “traditional” distractions, such as talking with passengers? Should distracted driving be a primary offense or a secondary offense — or neither? Are there promising prevention strategies that merit wider use?”

Secretary LaHood was the first to reply. Among other things, he provided an update on the DOTs two pilot enforcement campaigns: “Our pilot programs with police departments in Syracuse and Hartford are reporting that high-visibility enforcement combined with stepped-up public service announcements has resulted in declines in driver cell phone use of 38% in Syracuse and 56% in Hartford. The data on texting in those cities is even more impressive with texting down 42% in Syracuse and a very promising 68% in Hartford.”

Greg Cohen, the president of the American Highway Users Alliance, starts out by saying, “We can all agree on the need to combat distracted driving.” Great. But then he went on to say, “Yet if we are honest, we should admit that we all get distracted sometimes. Hopefully an educated group of “transportation experts” on this blog has put down the cellphone and blackberry while driving. But the reality is that we will continue to make mistakes — enforced legislation and education can only go so far to stop them. So we need to do more than try to stop all distractions — we need to embrace the many engineering solutions that focus on preventing crashes, injurires, and fatalities caused by the distractions that, under any realistic scenario, will continue to occur.” That’s what got Andy going.

Here’s Andy’s full response:

Let me start by taking the unusual step of agreeing with Greg Cohen – don’t worry, normal service will resume later. Reducing or eliminating distracted driving is indeed something we can all agree is critical to continue the decline in traffic fatalities recently reported for 2009. Regardless of what we drive and where we drive, distracted driving is a real threat. Reducing that threat is something that we all have a stake in; cyclists and pedestrians can stand beside truck drivers and soccer moms in minivans to address it together, and who knows where that might take us in the future as we actually get to know each other a little better. That started to happen at the “Towards Zero Deaths” meeting in Washington last month. At the state and local level, you will find cycling organizations to be great allies with an impassioned membership ready to work with you to pass tough distracted driving legislation and support the enforcement that must go with it. That started to happen in Florida, Michigan and many other states this year.

Where we part company with Greg is being willing to accept that some level of distracted driving is acceptable and inevitable – and that therefore we should focus on making vehicles and roadways that are OK to crash on. I’m not interested in trying to walk or ride along the street as part of some giant fairground bumper car game where drivers feel like they can crash with relative impunity. I want drivers (and cyclists) to pay attention, drive carefully, and NOT crash. The focus for me has to be on improving driver behavior, attention and responsibility.

We have come a long way in improving the safety of vehicle occupants. Indeed, you could be fogiven for wondering why we aren’t doing dramatically better already after the introduction of seat belts, air bags, anti-lock brakes, crumple zones, roll-over protection and the like. After 50 years of highway design that has widened, and straightened roads; removed all manner of roadside obstacles (like killer trees); installed collapsible poles and safer guardrailing; limited access and crossings; rumbled, signed and marked roads with ever-increasing levels of visibility and reflectivity. After quite incredible improvements in medical treatment and EMS services in the event of crashes. Really, where have all the benefits to all these great developments disappeared? Why have we still been killing 40,000-plus people a year for decade after decade?

One possible answer could be that we are a nation of generally lousy, distracted, careless drivers who really don’t take the responsibility of driving seriously and are not held to account for that behavior individually or collectively. That needs to change, and focusing on distracted driving is a welcome opportunity to do just that.

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