Senate Kicks Distracted Driving Back to the States

Republicans and Democrats bow to industry over public safety.

by on Jun.10, 2010

Too many voters are using cell phones or other electronic tools for politicians to ban their use.

In 2008, almost 6,000 people died in crashes that involved distracted driving.

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee has approved legislation (S. 1938), to offer “incentive grants” to states that enact laws to combat distracted driving.

The problem is that the bill does nothing to stop the epidemic of distracted driving deaths on U.S. roads. Too many voters are using cell phones and other electronic devices for politicians to ban their use.

The bill sponsored by Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller (D-WV) and Ranking Member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) imposes no new mandates. It also would be funded through existing programs, reflecting awareness in Washington of growing public disapproval of runaway deficits during an election year, which will see one third of the Senate facing angry voters.

In 2008, almost 6,000 people died in crashes that involved distracted driving, or DD, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

NHTSA defines distracted driving as anything “that takes your eyes off the road, your hands off the steering wheel, or interrupts your concentration while driving.” DD now accounts for 16% of all traffic fatalities. In addition, 515,000 individuals were injured – 22% of total injuries – in crashes involving distracted driving in 2008. 

Automakers, suppliers, and the electronics and telecommunications industries are adding unprecedented amounts of driver distractions to new vehicles, of course. Unfortunately, all these industries have significant influence with both national and state politicians.

The ongoing political posturing around DD is tough for me to take, given the magnitude of the problem.

“All would agree that driving while distracted poses serious safety risks not only to the drivers, but to passengers, pedestrians, and anyone sharing the road,” said Senator Hutchison, who is unprepared to do much about it, as her bill demonstrates.

“I think it is most appropriate for the states to handle this issue and devise laws that best meet their particular needs. Our legislation does not threaten states with lost highway funds if they elect not to enact a distracted driving law,” said Hutchison.

Why not?

Moreover, she is not alone in this. The bill is cosponsored by Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), John Thune (R-SD), David Vitter (R-LA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Tom Udall (D-NM),  Mark Warner (D-VA), Charles Schumer (D-NY), and Robert Casey (D-PA).

Worse, as written, their legislation only uses the incentive grant program for enactment of handheld cell phone bans. Research clearly indicates that all cell phone use – whether handheld or hands-free – is unsafe when driving.

More puzzling is the response of the National Safety Council, which supports the “Distracted Driving Prevention Act,” as S. 1938 is misnamed.

The National Safety Council was the first major organization to call for a total ban on cell phone use while driving. Since its call for a ban more than a year ago, NSC has worked to educate business leaders and elected officials about the dangers of distracted driving. NSC estimates more than one out of every four motor vehicle crashes involves cell phone use at the time of the crash. Each year, this distracted driving problem results in about 1.6 million crashes, hundreds of thousands of injuries, and thousands of deaths. (See NSC Says All Driving Cell Phone Use is Dangerous)

“This is a major step in the right direction. We appreciate Chairman Rockefeller’s leadership in introducing the legislation and bringing it up for a vote in the Senate Commerce Committee. This legislation will help save lives,” said Janet Froetscher, NSC President and CEO. “We ask that committee members support the legislation and call on the Senate to quickly take up and pass the legislation,” said Froetscher.

Okay, politics is the art of the possible.

Less enthusiastic or more candid in its comments is AAA, North America’s largest motoring and group with almost 52 million members.

“If the handheld phone ban incentives remain in the current proposal, AAA believes that the public education and awareness efforts provided for under the bill must also include key messaging about the serious risks of hands-free phone use (cognitive distraction) among drivers. Absent such efforts, the public could be misled to believe that hands-free devices are safe to use – a notion that is not supported by current research,” said AAA President & CEO Robert Darbelnet.

Be careful out there, the DD epidemic is growing. And no one is doing much about it.

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