Washington - Visual distractions are more likely to cause car accidents than talking on a cellphone, said a panel at a driver distraction seminar hosted by the Department of Transportation (DOT).
The panel called for laws banning text messaging and cited the need for public education.
Several representative at the conference said crashes are rare when drivers' eyes are on the road, citing a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study released in July.
Kicking off the seminar Wednesday morning, DOT secretary Ray LaHood said, "Every time you take your eyes off the road, even for a few seconds, you put your life in danger and also the lives of others."
LaHood said 6,000 people died in auto accidents last year caused by a distracted driver and more than 500,000 people were injured in such accidents. Teenagers, in particular, are at a greater risk for having an accident due to distracted driving.
On Wednesday afternoon, a technology panel convened that included representatives of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the CTIA wireless trade association.
Dr. David Eby, research associate professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, said cellphone use in the car more than doubled between 2000 and 2005. At the same time, roads are getting more congested and the population is aging, so more drivers may be on the road with impaired cognitive functioning.
Eby said there are different levels of distraction for different devices. Operating and dialing a handheld phone causes more distraction than talking on a handheld phone. Talking on the phone, however, still causes a reduction in "situational awareness." Hands-free dialing on a phone causes moderate distraction, but less so than manual dialing.
Not surprisingly, panelists stressed the benefits of technology. Steve Largent, president and CEO of the CTIA, noted that there are more than 290,000 calls on cellphones to 911 and other emergency service daily.
Michael Petricone, government affairs senior VP for CEA, said GPS devices improve safety by preventing drivers from fumbling with maps, and again cited the Virginia Tech study, claiming "cognitive activities are not nearly as risky as visually distracting activity." He called for a ban on texting while driving but not on voice-operated texting.
Rod MacKenzie, chief technology officer and programs VP for the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, pointed to various driver safety features currently being employed in some vehicles. These include lane-departure warning devices and pre-emptive braking devices that use radar to warn drivers if they are getting too close to the car in front. There are also blind-spot warning systems, and driver-alert systems that monitor as many as 70 indicators to determine if a driver is getting too sleepy to drive. He added that Bluetooth hands-free technology, steering-wheel controls, USB and text-to-speech for text messages are also technologies that can improve safety.
Panel members called for more research, laws banning texting while driving and consumer education. MacKenzie also called for incentives to add driver safety devices in more cars.
Rob Strassburger, VP of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, stated, "It's a rare crash that occurs when the driver's eyes are on the roadway." He said, "Visual distraction is the primary concern. Looking away from the roadway is the principal contributor to crashes."
However, one member of the audience during the question period confronted the panel members by citing another study that found the actual phone conversation - the act of talking on the phone - is what causes distraction. The same woman said that her mother was killed by a distracted driver who was allegedly following safe guidelines in operating technology in the car.
As background, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study, recently released, concluded that the actual conversation on the phone causes distraction to a similar level as one who is legally intoxicated.
The recent Virginia Tech study was performed in a real-world driving situation vs. earlier studies performed on simulators, it said. The study found that dialing and texting, especially texting, caused serious risk, but talking or listening on the phone caused much less risk. The Virginia Tech study said, "Recent results from other researchers using driving simulators suggest that talking and listening is as dangerous as visually distracting cellphone tasks. The results from VTTI's naturalistic driving studies clearly indicate that this is not the case."
Virginia Tech's research said text messaging was the worst offender with the highest risk, more than 20 times worse than driving while not using a phone, and it also had the longest duration of "eyes off road" time (4.6 seconds over a six-second interval). This equates to a driver traveling the length of a football field at 55 mph without looking at the roadway.
By contrast, talking and listening on a cellphone allowed drivers to maintain eyes on the road, creating a risk of a crash or near-crash that was 1.3 times greater than a non-distracted driver.
Referencing earlier studies, the Virginia Tech study said if just talking on a phone produced the same distraction as driving drunk, then the number of fatal crashes would have increased roughly 50 percent in the last decade instead of remaining largely unchanged, given the increase in phone use.
During the panel Wednesday, Straussberg and others also mentioned that wireless technology in the future may help driver safety due to a wireless communication system under development that would allow drivers to communicate with each other to alert of road hazards and other problems. The system is called IntelliDrive and is fostered by the DOT.