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Driver Distraction Panel Blames Sight, Not Audio

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

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)
, 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.