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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 74 · No. 2 > Taking on Distracted Driving

September/October 2010
Vol. 74 · No. 2

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-10-006

Taking on Distracted Driving

by Kelly Leone

USDOT tackles one of the main scourges plaguing today's highways -- a perfect storm of motorists text messaging and using cell phones.

Driver distraction, such as cell phone use and text messaging, is a growing safety concern for the transportation industry. This staged photo demonstrates one of the dangers of distracted driving.
Driver distraction, such as cell phone use and text messaging, is a growing safety concern for the transportation industry. This staged photo demonstrates one of the dangers of distracted driving.

Over the past decade, cell phones and other mobile devices have transformed how Americans communicate and stay connected in their work and personal lives. Inevitably, this wireless revolution has begun to affect the Nation's transportation system. Distracted driving threatens to become a deadly epidemic on U.S. roads. In 2008, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that nearly 6,000 people lost their lives and more than half a million were injured in crashes involving driver distraction.

"Distracted driving" refers to any nondriving activity that takes motorists' attention away from the safe operation of their vehicles. Experts have identified three types of driver distraction:visual (drivers taking their eyes off the road), manual (taking their hands off the wheel), and cognitive (taking their minds off the road). Although all kinds of distractions can affect safety adversely, talking and texting on a cell phone while driving have emerged as two of the most dangerous forms of distracted driving. Text messaging is particularly hazardous because it involves all three types of distraction -- visual, manual, and cognitive -- and it is an increasingly common behavior. In the words of John Lee, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and internationally recognized expert in driver distraction, texting while driving is a "perfect storm" of driver distraction.

Research on distracted driving has begun to reveal the scope and magnitude of the distracted driving epidemic:

  • Texting while driving has the highest crash risk of all forms of distraction. The odds of being involved in a safety-critical event (crashes, near-crashes, crash-relevant conflicts, and unintentional lane deviations) are 23 times greater for commercial vehicle drivers who text message while driving than for those who do not, as reported in a 2009 study, Driver Distraction in Commercial Vehicle Operations, sponsored by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
  • Drivers who use cell phones are four times more likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
  • Some research indicates that talking while driving reduces brain activity. A study by Carnegie Mellon University, published in 2008, found that driving while using a cell phone reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent.
  • A 2009 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, Teens and Distracted Driving, indicates that at least 52 percent of cell-owning teens ages 16-17 say they have talked on a cell phone while driving, and 34 percent say they have texted while driving.

To combat this widespread epidemic of dangerous behavior, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has launched a nationwide effort to end distracted driving. Secretary LaHood convened the first national Distracted Driving Summit in September 2009 to bring together transportation officials, safety advocates, law enforcement representatives, members of Congress, industry representatives, academics, and young adults in an effort to start solving the problem.

Coordinated by the U.S. Department of Transportation's (USDOT) Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA), the summit included interactive, Web-based, and new media features. Close to 30,000 viewers from all 50 States and a number of countries tuned into the summit's Web cast (www.tvworldwide.com/events/rita/090830).

This teenager appears to be text messaging while trying to drive his car—an especially unsafe practice.
This teenager appears to be text messaging while trying to drive his car-an especially unsafe practice.

In addition to the insights shared by the experts who spoke during the 2-day event, attendees and the Web cast viewers heard the testimony of families who have lost loved ones because someone else chose to send a text, dial a phone, or become occupied with another activity while driving. The Web cast viewers also participated by email in a question-and-answer period.

At the end of the summit, Secretary LaHood announced several measures aimed at curbing distracted driving, including an Executive order issued by President Barack Obama banning Federal employees from texting or using Government-issued phones or other devices while driving on official business. The order took effect immediately and covered four million Federal employees, including military personnel.

Secretary LaHood said that the Executive order "sends a very clear signal to the American public that distracted driving is dangerous and unacceptable."

A full house attended the Distracted Driving Summit (shown here) in Washington, DC, while thousands more attended online.
A full house attended the Distracted Driving Summit (shown here) in Washington, DC, while thousands more attended online.

Early Steps

Since the summit, the USDOT has pursued a number of new safety measures and is using its statutory authority to crack down on dangerous behavior behind the wheel. Secretary LaHood puts it best, "We're using every tool at our disposal -- research, technology, and our rule-making process -- to get a handle on this problem and find effective ways to curb it."

In January 2010, the Department announced that operators of large commercial trucks and buses who text behind the wheel may be subject to civil or criminal penalties. The Department also is working on new rules to restrict the use of electronic devices by rail workers and to revoke commercial licenses for certain schoolbus drivers convicted of texting while driving.

On the State level, USDOT has promoted efforts to stop distracted driving by providing sample legislation and encouraging States to adopt tough distraction laws. As of July 2010, 30 States, the District of Columbia, and Guam had banned text messaging for all drivers; 11 of these laws were enacted in 2010. Seven States, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands had enacted bans on use of all handheld devices behind the wheel.

In April 2010, NHTSA launched pilot programs in Hartford, CT, and Syracuse, NY, to test the extent to which high-visibility law enforcement efforts combined with public service announcements can persuade distracted drivers to put down their hand-held cell phones and focus on the road. Dubbed "Phone in One Hand. Ticket in the Other,"the pilot programs, which are similar to previous efforts to curb drunk driving and increase seatbelt use among drivers, represent the first effort in the country to focus specifically on the effects of increased enforcement and public advertising on reducing distracted driving.

NHTSA and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are collaborating on an on--line Distracted Driving Information Clearinghouse. Companies developing cell phone filtering technology can use the clearinghouse to post information about their inventions. An example is a software application downloadable to a motorist's phone that activates automatically or manually to lock the keypad to prevent texting or emailing while driving. (See www.fcc.gov/cgb/driving_clearinghouse.html.)

Transportation Secretary Ray H. LaHood is shown here at the podium at the Distracted Driving Summit.
Transportation Secretary Ray H. LaHood is shown here at the podium at the Distracted Driving Summit.

Recent Research: Nationwide Survey Of Crashes

Because of the limitations of crash reports, driver distraction is likely to be under-reported in crash data. As a result, USDOT is conducting research into the extent that driver distraction affects the transportation system.

For example, NHTSA recently conducted a nationwide survey of crashes involving light passenger vehicles. The National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey reviewed a nationally representative sample of 5,471 crashes over a 2.5-year period from July 3, 2005, to December 31, 2007. The survey researchers assessed the critical events that preceded each crash, the reasons for those events, and any other associated factors that might have been present in the crashes.

Examples of critical events included running off the road, failure to stay in the proper lane, or loss of control of the vehicle. Identifying the reasons underlying the critical events, the researchers attributed them to the drivers, condition of the vehicles, failure of the vehicle systems, adverse environmental conditions, or roadway design. The researchers subdivided each of these areas to determine more specific critical reasons.

In cases where the researchers attributed the critical reason to the motorist, they identified various facets of driver distraction, which enabled them to quantify the extent to which this factor contributed to the crashes. They cited inattention as the critical reason in 3 percent of the crashes, internal distraction (such as talking on a cell phone, eating, reading, or adjusting the radio) in about 11 percent, and external distraction (such as looking out the window at a building, street sign, or person) in about 4 percent. Overall, an estimated 18 percent of the crashes involved driver distraction.

In addition to reporting distraction as a critical reason, the survey identified factors that added to the probable occurrence of a crash and could be attributed to the driver, vehicle, roadway, or environment -- the same categories as the critical reason classification. Eighteen percent of drivers were engaged in at least one interior nondriving activity (for example, looking at other occupants, dialing or hanging up a phone, or conversing with a passenger).Drivers aged 16 to 25 had the highest percentage of engagement in at least one interior nondriving activity.

National Occupant Protection Use Survey

In another Federal research effort, NHTSA's ongoing National Occupant Protection Use Survey collects the only probability-based (statistically weighted so subject to sampling variability) observational data in the United States on drivers' use of electronic devices while driving. Based on the survey's sampling method, the findings are representative of the Nation as a whole with a 90 percent confidence level.

In 2008, the survey researchers reported driver use of hand-held cell phones at 6 percent, the same percentage as the previous year. This rate equates to drivers in 812,000 vehicles using hand-held cell phones while driving on the road at any given daylight moment. If the use of hands-free phones is included, the number translates to an estimated 11 percent of drivers using a cell phone on the road during any given daylight moment (7 a.m. to 6 p.m.).

100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study

The goal of another Federal research study, published in 2006, NHTSA's 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study, also sponsored by the Virginia Department of Transportation, and the Virginia Transportation Research Council, was to provide details on performance, behavioral, environmental, and other factors associated with 69 crashes, 761 near-crashes, and 8,295 related incidents during a 1-year observational study. To prepare for the study period, the researchers instrumented 100 vehicles driven by 241 primary and secondary drivers.

The data covered approximately 2 million vehicle-miles and 43,000 hours of driving in 2003. As stated in An Overview of the 100-Car Naturalistic Study and Findings, "A goal of this study was to maximize the potential to record crash and near-crash events through the selection of subjects with higher than average crash- or near-crash risk exposure." To achieve this goal, the researchers who conducted the 100-car study focused on drivers under age 25 who drive more than average.

The researchers selected the subjects from northern Virginia and the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, where driving conditions are primarily urban and suburban, often in moderate to heavy traffic. This type of purposive sample served the intention of the study; however, it limited the application of the findings. The results cannot be generalized to represent the behavior of the Nation's overall population or the potential causes of crashes that occur on America's roadways. NHTSA conducted this exploratory small-scale study to determine the feasibility of a larger study (now in process) that would be more representative of the Nation's driving behavior.

Road Departure Crashes

When drivers are distracted, it is not uncommon for them to drift out of their travel lane and off the edge of the roadway. Road departure crashes account for 52 percent of all highway fatalities, according to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Most of these crashes involve only one vehicle, whose driver became distracted or made another error. To reduce the number of these crashes, FHWA has been promoting rumble strips as a proven safety countermeasure, and 43 State departments of transportation have adopted the use of rumble strips on their highways.

Many other proven, cost-effective methods are available to prevent road departure crashes, and FHWA has been strongly encouraging States and local governments to implement those safety measures. States and local governments can use highway safety improvement program (HSIP) funds, as well as other Federal-aid infrastructure funds, for those improvements.

A number of States have made these measures standard practice, while others have invested in statewide applications. To read more about these and other crash countermeasures, visit http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov.

Safety measures like these centerline and edgeline rumble strips help motorists avoid road departures by calling their attention back to the road when they’re distracted.
Safety measures like these centerline and edgeline rumble strips help motorists avoid road departures by calling their attention back to the road when they're distracted.

This study's researchers classified the encompassing term inattention as including four types: (1) secondary task involvement, (2) fatigue, (3) driving-related inattention to the forward roadway, and (4) nonspecific eye glance away from the forward roadway. The researchers defined secondary task involvement as behavior that diverts the driver's attention away from the driving task, which can include talking on a cell phone, eating, talking to a passenger, and texting. Consequently, secondary task involvement in the 100-car study closely corresponds to the behaviors included under the category of driver distraction. Results of the study indicate that secondary task distraction contributed to more than 22 percent of all the crashes and near-crashes recorded during the study period.

Driver Distraction in Commercial Vehicle Operations

As mentioned earlier, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute published Driver Distraction in Commercial Vehicle Operations under contract with FMCSA. The study included more than 200 truck drivers and data from 3 million miles (4.8 million kilometers) of operations. The researchers obtained the dataset by placing monitoring instruments on vehicles and recording the behavior of drivers conducting real-world revenue-producing operations. Of the 4,452 safety-critical events noted in the combined data, 60 percent had some type of tertiary task listed as a potential contributing factor. Tertiary tasks are nondriving related tasks, such as texting or dialing a cell phone.

To determine odds ratios, the researchers determined the odds of a safety-critical event occurring as compared with normal, nonevent, baseline driving. The most risky behavior identified by the research was "text message on cell phone," with an odds ratio of 23.2 -- the odds of being involved in a safety-critical event are 23.2 times greater for drivers who text message while driving than for those who do not. Other tasks that significantly increased risk included interacting with a dispatching device (9.9 times greater), writing on a notepad (9.0), using a calculator (8.2), and looking at a map (7.0).

Texting drivers took their eyes off the forward roadway for an average of 4.6 seconds during the 6-second interval surrounding a safety-critical event. At 55 miles per hour, this equates to a driver traveling the length of a football field without looking at the road. Other tasks that drew drivers' eyes away from the forward roadway involved using a calculator (4.4 seconds), interacting with a dispatching device (4.1 seconds), and dialing a cell phone (3.8 seconds).

The final report is available at www.fmcsa.dot.gov/facts-research/research-technology/report/FMCSA-RRR-09-042.pdf.

Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey

The 2007 Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey, conducted by NHTSA, was a national telephone survey on occupant protection issues. Volume 4, Crash Injury and Emergency Medical Services Report, includes discussion of issues pertaining to the use of cell phones in vehicles. According to the report, 81 percent of drivers aged 16 and older usually have cell phones in their vehicles when they drive. This rate decreases for older age groups -- starting at 87 percent of 16- to 54-year-olds but decreasing to 74 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds and 63 percent of drivers aged 65 and older. Of those who usually have a cellphone with them when driving, 85 percent said they keep the phone turned on during all or most of their trips. Among those who keep the phone on, 64 percent always or usually answer incoming phone calls while driving.

Of the drivers who usually carry cell phones while driving, 16 percent said they talk on their phones during most or all of their trips, and 17 percent said they talk on their phones during half of their trips. On the other hand, 22 percent reported never talking on their phones while driving. If driving when they want to dial their phones, 32 percent of those who at least occasionally talk on the phone said they tend to dial while continuing to drive. An additional 37 percent wait until they reach a temporary stop, and 19 percent pull over to a stop and place the call. Only 10 percent of those surveyed stated they never dial the phone in this situation.

Need To Address All Transportation Modes

To address driver distraction effectively, national efforts to eliminate this practice cannot maintain a narrow focus on automobiles on the road. Distraction is a serious safety threat for all modes of transportation.

Air. On October 21, 2009, Northwest Airlines Flight 188 went approximately 77 minutes without any radio communications while the plane flew from San Diego to Minneapolis. The flight overflew Minneapolis by more than 100 miles (161 kilometers) before the pilots reestablished radio contact with air traffic controllers, adjusted the aircraft's flight path, and landed in Minneapolis. According to documents released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the flight crew appears to have become distracted due to a cockpit discussion of a personal nature, which involved using the crew's laptop computers. The NTSB investigation is ongoing.

Rail. On October 7, 2008, the Federal Railroad Administration issued an emergency order restricting the on duty use of cell phones and other electronic devices (see Federal Register,Volume 73, Number 195). This action was a response, in part, to the September 12, 2008, head-on collision between a Southern California Regional Rail Authority (Metrolink) commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth, CA. The crash resulted in 25 deaths, numerous injuries, and more than $12 million in damages. Information discovered during the NTSB investigation indicated that the locomotive engineer operating the Metrolink commuter train inadvertently passed an active stop signal. NTSB stated that a cell phone owned by that engineer had been used to send a text message within 30 seconds of the time of the crash.

In May 2009, a Green Line trolley operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) struck a stopped trolley. The crash injured 49 people and caused extensive damage to both MBTA trolleys. Preliminary reports indicate that the operator of the moving trolley was sending a text message on his cell phone at the time of the crash.

Motorcoach. On November 14, 2004, a motorcoach struck a bridge on the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Alexandria, VA, destroying the roof of the bus and injuring 11 students, including 1 seriously. An NTSB investigation determined the bus driver had been talking on a hands-free cell phone at the time of the incident. Records from the service provider of the bus driver's personal cell phone showed that the driver initiated a 12-minute call on the morning of the crash.

The driver said that he saw neither the warning signs nor the bridge itself before impact. Evidence indicates that he did not apply the brakes before hitting the bridge. NTSB concluded the bus driver's cell phone conversation diverted his attention from the roadway. This crash resulted in the NTSB recommendation that holders of commercial driver's licenses, with passenger-carrying or schoolbus endorsements, be prohibited from using cell phones and other personal electronic devices while driving those vehicles.

The Way Forward

Following the 2009 Distracted Driving Summit, USDOT launched a national public service announcement and a Federal Web site (www.distraction.gov) to provide the public with a comprehensive resource for information and ways to get involved. In January 2010, Secretary LaHood and National Safety Council President Janet Froetscher announced the creation of FocusDriven, a direct outgrowth of the summit. Focus Driven is the first national nonprofit devoted specifically to raising awareness of the dangers of distracted driving.

This man's eyes are on his cell phone rather than the road ahead.
This man's eyes are on his cell phone rather than the road ahead.

Like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and similar collaborative, grassroots organizations, FocusDriven is a direct result of the tragic consequences of a growing roadway safety issue. The group's leader is Jennifer Smith, who has been an outspoken advocate against distracted driving since her mother was killed in 2008 by a motorist talking on a cell phone while driving. Smith and other victims, and their families, are seeking to use their voices to make a positive impact.

FocusDriven hosts a victims support network and other tools that enable victims to connect with each other and be heard. These tools and information on how to get involved are available at the organization's Web site (www.focusdriven.org).

Secretary LaHood first met several of the founding members of FocusDriven at the Distracted Driving Summit. "Their stories are not just heartbreaking; they're also a clear and compelling call to action," he says.

The Distracted Driving Summit launched a national blitz. Secretary LaHood has joined a number of high-profile public awareness campaigns, including Oprah Winfrey's No Phone Zone Day on April 29 to get the word out on distracted driving. Winfrey has personally committed to the cause of ending distracted driving, dedicating an entire episode of her talk show to the issue. In addition, she started a No Phone Zone campaign to implore motorists to pledge to turn off their cell phones when on the road. (See www.oprah.com/oprahshow/End-Distracted-Driving.) Cell phone makers, insurance companies, celebrities, and others are supporting responsible use of cell phones and other electronic devices. Secretary LaHood and American Idol Finalist Jordin Sparks helped launch Allstate's "X the Txt" campaign in April 2010 in Washington, DC.

Young people also are getting the message. Students are reaching out to their peers across the country to raise awareness about the dangers of texting and chatting while driving. Last year, the National Organizations for Youth Safety and The National Road Safety Foundation, Inc., announced a contest to create a public service announcement to raise awareness among young adults. The "Drive to Life" competition sought ideas from young people, with the winner's idea to be featured on national television.

In February 2010, after receiving thousands of entries, the campaign announced that Bethany Brown's "Redo" won the contest. According to the National Organizations for Youth Safety, her idea involved "a teen responding to a text message while driving, which causes her to crash into an oncoming car. The scene rewinds and begins again, but this time the driver ignores the buzzing cell phone as she safely passes the car she had hit in the first scene. A text message is shown on screen, saying 'There are no redo's in real life.'"

And in May 2010, at the United Nations headquarters in New York, Secretary LaHood joined Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and senior representatives from the United States and Russia to launch a global effort to address the growing and deadly epidemic of distracted driving.

Despite all these efforts, no amount of research, education, and law enforcement can completely eliminate the dangerous choices drivers make on the road. The reality is that distracted driving is ultimately the responsibility of the individual.

Meanwhile, the list of temptations that potentially can distract drivers keeps growing -- from using smartphones and laptops to eating or reaching for something in the back seat.

Secretary LaHood says that hope for combating distraction is found in the way forward: "If there's any good news here, it's that we know there are proven strategies to help us deal with this." Decades of experience with drunk driving has taught the Nation that making progress takes a consistent combination of education, effective enforcement, a committed judiciary, and collective efforts by local, State, and national advocates.

In this dramatization, a teenager is about to cause a crash while she talks on her cell phone and looks at her passenger—everywhere but the road.
In this dramatization, a teenager is about to cause a crash while she talks on her cell phone and looks at her passenger-everywhere but the road.

Kelly Leone, Ph.D. is the director of information technology and deputy chief information officer with FMCSA and former deputy associate administrator in USDOT's RITA. Dr. Leone has a diverse background in transportation systems research and development (R&D) and now oversees more than $100 million in R&D programs. She received her Ph.D. in transportation engineering from the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). She also was the recipient of the 2003 University Transportation Centers Annual Outstanding Student of the Year Award for her work in association with NJIT's National Center for Transportation and Industrial Productivity.

For more information, see www.distraction.gov, or contact Kelly Leone at 202-366-5459 or kelly.leone@dot.gov. USDOT is holding a second National Distracted Driving Summit on September 21, 2010, in Washington, DC.

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