Near-Term Solutions for Distracted Driving
Vernon F. Betkey, Jr., chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association, predicts a combination of education, policy, enforcement, and technology will solve the problem, starting this year.
- By Jerry Laws
- Mar 01, 2010
Real progress is happening right now in the national battle against distracted driving, says Vernon F. Betkey, Jr., chief of the Maryland Highway Safety Office and chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association. "We're on the right path," he said during a recent interview. "And I have to give a lot of credit to [U.S. Transportation] Secretary LaHood, who brought this issue to the forefront. This is the kind of thing we need in highway safety, to let our motoring public know that this is not just something we're running around writing tickets for; it has actually reached the big boys up in Washington. They're taking note that this is not something we're going to stand for.
"It's a public safety issue, it's a community harm issue. It has a huge economic impact. Raising awareness, starting at the top, is something we can be very proud to have. That's big for pushing a highway safety initiative, having that top-down support."
Twenty states have put texting while driving laws on their books, and more state laws are coming. Betkey said 242 such bills were submitted to state legislatures during 2009. "It's definitely on their radar screen, and the states are looking at it very closely," he said. "Another thing we have to look at, this isn't something that has happened overnight. Distractions have always been a part of driving. What's happened now is that technology has advanced so far that the technological advances are becoming a greater distraction. Technology kind of got us into where we are now; maybe technology can get us out."
Calling All Employers: Have a Policy
Vehicle crashes are the leading cause of occupational fatalities in this country. During 2008, there were 2,053 occupational fatalities involving transportation incidents, of which 1,149 were highway fatalities, BLS reported in August 2009. For this reason alone, the nation's employers ought to be strongly supportive of the campaign to prevent distracted driving, Betkey said.
"One of the things we are promoting is employer involvement," Betkey said. "Our association thinks they're a huge piece of this puzzle. Because you can reach so many people through the employer, and employers have such a vested interest in the health and welfare of their employees. Any way they can extend an employment policy for their workers is only going to strengthen our efforts in promoting the health issues surrounding distracted driving."
Many employers have adopted texting and cell phone bans for their workers. That's the first step every employer should take -- creating a company policy clearly stating its prohibitions and sanctions to let employees know this is something the company won't take this likely, he said. "The economic impact to an employer is not only on the job, it's off the job. . . . It should be very attractive for an employer to at least have a policy telling employees what steps to take."
Betkey cited KCI Technologies Inc. of Sparks, Md. as an employer with a solid distracted driving policy in place. KCI is an employee-owned engineering firm with some 900 employees working in offices in several eastern states, said Terry Neimeyer, the company's CEO and board chairman. KCI owns almost 200 vehicles, of which 150 are assigned and 50 are pool, Neimeyer said.
The company's policy covers the use of any company-owned, -leased, or -rented vehicle by any employee, including a temporary worker. The policy states: "Employees avoid using a cell phone or other electronic devices while driving. Incoming calls received while driving are allowed to go to voicemail. The vehicle is safely pulled off the road and stopped if it is necessary to use a cell phone. Conversations are suspended during hazardous situations such as bad weather. Employees always stay focused on driving the vehicle in a safe manner."
The policy states that KCI reviews employees' DMV records upon hire and periodically thereafter. If a vehicle is damaged through the fault of an employee, that employee may be held personally responsible for half of the insurance deductible or the cost of repairs or actual damages, whichever is less, the policy states.
"We were having a lot of accidents occurring. To get skin in the game, we started this 'back charge' policy," Neimeyer said. As for checking DMV information upon hire and annually, "We've found people with suspended licenses that were driving our vehicles. Some people with pending DUIs were driving our vehicles," he said.
The policy "has been effective for us," decreasing both the number and severity of vehicle accidents, he added.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a sample texting while driving law on Feb. 22 that states can use as a framework for their own legislation. Several organizations helped in developing it, including Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, the National Safety Council, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, AAA, CTIA -- The Wireless Association, and the CDC.
Following the DUI Model
A combination of education, policy, enforcement, and technology will solve the distracted driving problem when the same approach that was used to attack impaired driving is utilized, Betkey said. Great strides made in raising seat belt use nationally also show the way, he said.
"We're driving down the numbers in impaired driving, and we're driving up the numbers in occupant protection. And trying to adapt that formula to a distracted driving program is the key to making it work," he said. "There's also a high degree of personal responsibility that goes along there. It's making distracted driving behaviors 'uncool,' so it's not socially acceptable. We did something similar with impaired driving. We made impaired driving a socially unacceptable norm. We have to do that same thing."
While the federal government pushed states to adopt 0.8 as their blood-alcohol limits, at the risk of losing federal money, GHSA prefers a conciliatory approach.
"The GHSA is not an advocate of sanctions. We're more an advocate for the incentive side," Betkey said. "The association would much rather see the federal government issue legislation that would have an incentive lead attached to it, more than a sanction lead."
Technology and Enforcement
He said he has talked with the manufacturers of two software products, Aegis Mobility's DriveAssist™ and ZoomSafer, which intercept calls when the vehicle is moving. Ford Motor Co.'s SYNC voice-operated system, which enables hands-free calling and reads incoming text messages, is another product that won't allow a driver to access part of the vehicle's computer operation at certain speeds, he said.
Two NHTSA distracted driving enforcement demonstration projects started earlier this year in Syracuse, N.Y. and Hartford, Conn. These projects will look for best practices in primary enforcement of cell phone laws, examining different techniques for discovering when cell phones are in use, and trying to give law enforcement ideas for what kinds of enforcement practices will work, Betkey said. NHTSA will develop the methodology of the study with the two jurisdictions, implement the plan, evaluate the projects, and then write a report. They're on the fast track with results to be distributed nationwide, he said.
Summing up, he said it takes repeated messages before the danger of distracted driving sinks in for most motorists, so this will take time. The enforcement component, that fear of getting caught, is essential, Betkey said.
"And we're making such great headway at reducing crashes," he observed. "We really in the last few years have seen a downward trend and, really since 1966, when they started the Transportation Act -- if we had not done something then, we would probably be looking at more than 100,000 fatalities a year. We've made a lot of progress, but this is just the kind of thing that can make your trends go the other way."
This year's GHSA annual meeting will be focused on technology's role in highway safety. The meeting will begin Sept. 26 at the Hyatt Regency Crown Center in Kansas City. Mo.