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Posted at 02:11 PM ET, 04/25/2012

‘Orange Cones. No Phones’: Safety officials focus on phones in work zones

Commuters have turned their cars into mobile homes, filled with distracting gadgets and activities, said Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton. National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman, on her way to the same event in Tysons Corner this morning, said she had seen plenty of other motorists talking and texting along the Capital Beltway.

There’s certainly no lack of attention on the problem of distracted driving, “It’s in the news almost every day,” said AAA-MidAtlantic’s Mahlon G. “Lon” Anderson.

In fact, the three of them were standing on a new bridge that’s part of the 495 Express Lanes work zone because they wanted to publicize the extra level of danger that comes with distracted driving through highway work zones.

This is National Work Zone Awareness Week. The planners of the Wednesday morning event on the new Westpark bridge ramp chose the time to renew their own campaign: “Orange Cones. No Phones.”

But Anderson expressed the frustration that many safety officials feel as they try go get drivers to absorb the message on distracted driving: “They hear it, but they don’t heed it.”

Indeed, there’s a lot of information out there that explains the problem. Anderson praised Hersman and the NTSB on this, saying they had “elevated the level of conversation about distracted driving.”

In March, she chaired a valuable forum of safety experts on inattentive driving. Here’s a link to an NTSB page from which you can view the archived Webcast of the day-long event, called the Attentive Driving Forum: Countermeasures to Distraction.

The NTSB has been out ahead of many others on this issue in calling for a complete ban on cell phone use by drivers. There’s no evidence that hands-free cell phone use is less distracting.

There’s also no evidence that — young or old — we’re really any good at multi-tasking.

When the educators can’t get that message across, bring on the enforcers.

“Distracted driving is a battle,” said Fairfax County Police Capt. Susan Culin. She explained to me that county police have been using an old weapon in a new way.

A Fairfax ordinance that allows police to charge drivers with failing to pay full attention to their driving used to be employed mostly in the aftermath of a crash.

It would cover times when a driver would say, “I just didn’t see the other car.” Now the county police use failure to pay full attention to driving as a primary charge when they observe bad behavior and also see that the driver is using a phone to talk or text.

Police may see the driver stray across lanes, stop short, or fail to go on a green light. The source of the distraction is often the cell phone, but any form of distraction that takes full attention away from driving would qualify.

“We will stop you and we will charge you,” Culin said.

If the threat of enforcement isn’t enough, think about the lives of the highway crews in these work zones. Along the 495 Express Lanes project, a 14-mile stretch on the west side of the Beltway in Virginia, there may be more than 1,000 workers out there each day.

As the project advances toward completion late this year, the work is concentrated in the Beltway’s middle lanes, where the jersey barriers will gradually be removed, leaving orange barrels as the main protection for the crews.

By  |  02:11 PM ET, 04/25/2012

Categories:  Traffic Safety, Capital Beltway | Tags:  DC transportation, Virginia Department of Transportation, 495 Express Lanes

 
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