Congress Reviews Driver Distraction, Awaits Further Research On Causes
By Jamie Sorcher On May 28 2001 - 5:00am
WASHINGTON — Widespread use of handheld cellphones by motorists has brought the red-hot issue of driver distraction to the attention of policymakers here, who are broadening their investigation to include navigation and telematics devices.
During a congressional hearing this month conducted by the House Transportation subcommittee, various industry trade groups testified on the topic of driver distraction, including the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Congress sought to determine if federal legislation is warranted to restrict not only cellphones, but navigation and telematics systems. The unofficial outcome of the hearing is that there is insufficient data to warrant that legislation, although new data should become available in the future.
Speaking on behalf of the NHTSA, Bob Shelton told the subcommittee that driver distraction accounts for one in four collisions in the U.S. each year, or 4,300 crashes a day.
Until recently, there was no research that defined what constituted a driver distraction. But a new study by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center for the Automobile Association of America (AAA) found that most often, drivers were distracted by something outside their vehicle, such as looking for an exit on a highway. The next largest distraction was adjusting the radio or CD player, followed by a distraction caused by a passenger. Using or dialing a cell phone accounted for just 1.5 percent of traffic accidents based on driver distraction.
"Presently, there is very little substantive research to assist lawmakers and regulators in crafting public policy and drafting guidelines to protect the public," Dr. Harold W. Worrall, Chairman of ITSA, told the House Transportation subcommittee. "We need more solid research."
Some of that may come in the form of more detailed police reports since most cities and states do not reveal whether cellphones or other in-vehicle devices were used at the time of a crash. Other data may become available by year's end from several pending studies.
ITSA has already convened a task force to work with automakers and organizations like the AAA and CEA to develop recommendations for voluntary industry guidelines for in-vehicle electronic devices.
For its part, CEA issued mobile video guidelines last December that stated "the LCD panel or video monitor must be installed so that these features will only function when the vehicle is in 'park.' " According to Doug Johnson, director of technology policy, CEA outlined three courses of action that include continued research, public education campaigns and enforcement of existing laws concerning reckless and careless driving.
Johnson noted in his written testimony that the mobile electronics industry has always been committed to driver and passenger safety, and that manufacturers take this into account when designing in-car electronics devices. "A vehicle navigation device, which audibly conveys directions to the driver, eliminates the need to handle a map and manually determine location and destination as the vehicle travels down the road," Johnson said.