Tag Archives: Distraction

Distracted Driving: An Epidemic?

Next time you’re driving and you take your hands off the steering wheel to reach for your coffee, or cell phone, or GPS unit, consider this: distracted driving-related crashes killed 5,474 people and injured another 448,000 across the United States in 2009.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report found that the proportion of overall traffic fatalities associated with driver distraction increased from 10 percent to 16 percent between 2005 and 2009, though the percentage remained unchanged between 2008 and 2009.

Of those people killed in distracted-driving-related crashes, 995 involved reports of a cell phone as a distraction (18 percent of fatalities). Of those injured in distraction-related crashes, 24,000 involved reports of a cell phone as a distraction (5 percent of injuries).

In a Sunday op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel published on the eve of the second Distracted Driving Summit, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the numbers show that distracted driving remains an epidemic in America and, due to underreporting, are just the tip of the iceberg.

The news comes as overall traffic fatalities fell in 2009 to their lowest levels since 1950. Updated 2009 NHTSA figures show that 33,808 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2009, down 9.7 percent from 37,423 in 2008.

The record-breaking decline in traffic fatalities occurred even while estimated vehicle miles traveled in 2009 increased by 0.2 percent over 2008 levels.

Meanwhile, debate continues on the best way to tackle the distracted driving problem, in particular cell phone use. Laws, effective enforcement, public education, crash avoidance technology, or a combination of all of these?

According to the DOT, distraction laws and enforcement are raising public awareness and changing behavior, resulting in major declines in distracted driving in certain areas of the country.

However, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) points out that while bans on driver phone use reduce phoning, they don’t reduce crash risk. A better prescription for distracted driving might be crash avoidance features, the IIHS says.

Which brings us to personal responsibility. The findings of a just-released Chubb survey reveal an amazing disconnect between how people view the dangers associated with distracted driving and their own behavior behind the wheel.

It found that more than half of U.S. motorists say they have used a cell phone while driving, but 90 percent say it should be illegal to do so.

In a press release Raymond Crisci, vice president and worldwide automobile product manager for Chubb Personal Insurance, says:

We’re hopeful that as people continue to become more educated regarding the hazards associated with distracted driving, they’ll be less likely to engage in risky behavior.†

Good point. What do you think?

For related info, check out an I.I.I. issues paper on auto crashes and I.I.I. facts and stats on highway safety.

Federal Texting Ban for Commercial Truck Drivers

In the latest in a series of actions to curb distracted driving, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has announced it is prohibiting truck and bus drivers from sending text messages while operating commercial vehicles. The ban, which is effective immediately, means that truck and bus drivers who text while driving commercial vehicles may be subject to civil or criminal penalties of up to $2,750, the DOT said. “Our regulations will help prevent unsafe activity within the cab,† said Anne Ferro, Administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). “We want to make it crystal clear to operators and their employers that texting while driving is the type of unsafe activity that these regulations are intended to prohibit.† The DOT’s blog Fast Lane has more on this story. As of December 30, 2009, federal employees have been banned from texting while driving government-owned vehicles or with government-owned equipment following an executive order signed by President Obama. At its Distracted Driving Summit last September, the DOT said it would pursue regulatory action as well as rulemakings to reduce the risks posed by distracted driving. The New York Times Bits blog notes that research from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute shows that truckers who text are 23 times more likely to get into a crash or near-crash than truckers not texting. Insurers are monitoring this emerging issue. I.I.I. president Dr. Robert Hartwig  recently observed that the problem of distraction is not confined to cars, but part of a greater problem associated with “distracted equipment operation†. This is leading to an epidemic of occupational injuries and workers compensation claims, he warned. Check out I.I.I. information on cellphones and driving.

Distracted Driving Lawsuit

It’s perhaps inevitable that amid rising concerns about cellphone use and distracted driving a lawsuit has been filed against a cellphone manufacturer and wireless provider by the daughter of a woman killed after her car was hit by a driver talking on his cellphone. A December 6 article in the New York Times by Matt Richtel outlines the details of the suit which alleges the companies failed to provide adequate warnings of the risks of cellphone use while driving. It goes on to cite legal experts explaining why the suit – currently the only such case and one of only a handful ever filed – faces steep challenges. Over at the Consumer Class Actions Mass Tort Blog, Russell Jackson, a partner at law firm Skadden Arps and quoted in the NYT article, offers analysis on why various legal defenses should make this cellphone suit untenable. First and foremost is the common knowledge defense, as Jackson explains:

It is commonly known that using a handheld mobile phone without a hands-free device increases the risk of accidents. Manufacturers warn about it in the product literature. Service providers post billboards about it. Governmental authorities and public interest groups erect signs warning against it. And most notably, it is illegal, and all licensed drivers are charged with knowledge of that law. On this point, tort law is clear: one has no duty to warn of a commonly known hazard. And what sort of warning would possibly alter the behavior of the driver who insists on using a hand-held mobile phone while possessed of the common knowledge about the risks? Simply put, there is none.

Meanwhile, we’re wondering how the concept of personal responsibility fits into all this. After all, there’s plenty of widely-publicized research and data out there that makes clear the risks of cellphone use and driving. Armed with this knowledge consumers continue to take the risk. What do you think? Check out I.I.I. information on cellphones and driving.

Technology to Make Technology Safer

The more gadgets we have the more gadgets we need, or at least that’s the way it often seems. But put this in the context of the distracted driving problem and you may have a solution that reduces crash fatalities and auto insurance premiums. An article in Saturday’s New York Times by Sam Grobart explains how technology companies are trying to solve a problem caused by our addiction to  technology with more technology. It points to the rising interest in services that automatically disable an individual’s cellphone when it is in a moving car. Apparently a number of companies have started offering call-blocking systems that place restrictions on phones based on its GPS signal, data from the car itself or from cell towers. Incoming calls would then be routed to voice mail or message. The concept goes a step further than hands-free systems. A key takeaway from the article is that while proponents of hands-free systems believe their products make driving safer, there is a growing body of evidence that hands-free is not the answer. Indeed, a number of studies have suggested that driver response times still may be significantly slower with hands-free devices and that the risk of crashing doesn’t vary with type of phone. Nationwide is among insurers offering a discount to policyholders who sign up to use a call-blocking service from Aegis Mobility. Time will tell whether the use of call-blocking devices takes off. Certainly for employers concerned that they may be liable for accidents caused by employees taking work-related cellphone calls while driving, the use of call-blocking systems may be an item worth adding to the technology budget. Check out I.I.I. information on cell phones and driving.

Flying While Distracted (FWD)

By now it’s old news that pilots of a Northwest flight that overshot its Minneapolis destination by 150 miles a week ago were looking at their laptops. Yesterday the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it had revoked the licenses of the pilots. They have 10 days to appeal the decision to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

According to a Wall Street Journal article, federal safety rules prohibit laptops in cockpits below 10,000 feet, but allow them during cruise. However, it cited a statement from Delta (now merged with Northwest) that the airline expressly forbids pilots from using laptops at any time or engaging in personal activity that could distract from flight duties.

Just a few weeks ago the U.S. Department of Transport held a Distracted Driving summit which highlighted the growing dangers of driving while distracted by texting or cellphone use. The Northwest incident underscores the point that whether it’s a car, an aircraft, a train or indeed any piece of machinery or equipment, their safe operation requires the full attention on the part of the operator.

Distraction is one part of the problem. An over-reliance on automation is another. An investigation into the June collision of two Washington D.C. Metrorail trains that left nine dead and about 80 injured focused at least partly on the fact that the moving train was operating in automatic mode, meaning that it was primarily controlled by a computer.

The use of technology has led to safer roads, skies, and workplaces to name a few, but if computers are in control, how much attention on the part of the driver or pilot or machine operator is required? Needless to say there are growing insurance implications and potential liabilities arising from these incidents. I.I.I. president Dr. Robert Hartwig recently observed that the problem of distraction is not confined to cars but is part of a greater problem associated with “distracted equipment operation†. This is leading to an epidemic of occupational injuries and workers compensation claims, he warned.  Insurers will be monitoring this  emerging issue.