N.Va. police: Accidents caused by cellphones have increased

With miles of highway construction underway in Northern Virginia, the region’s police officers say work-zone accidents have increased dramatically because drivers are using mobile devices to talk or text.

A survey of 409 police officers who patrol Northern Virginia’s roadways found that cellphone use was to blame in one in three work-zone accidents. They said sending or reading text messages was twice as likely to cause accidents than any other driver error.

The survey, presented Tuesday by AAA and Transurban, the company building high-occupancy toll lanes in Northern Virginia, was the first to seek the opinions of state and county police officers who respond to accident scenes.

Nearly 80 percent said banning cellphone use behind the wheel would dramatically reduce road accidents. The National Transportation Safety Board last year called for a ban on all cellphone use while driving.

In an earlier report, AAA said that more than half of the 210,000 drivers who use the Capital Beltway each day are distracted by cellphones.

“Navigating the extensive work zones in Northern Virginia requires drivers’ full attention,” Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean T. Connaughton said. “It is important for drivers to realize that distracted driving in a construction work zone poses an enormous threat to the safety of our workers and their fellow travelers.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said 5,474 people died and 448,000 were injured in 2009 in crashes in which distracted driving was involved.

Distracted driving becomes significantly more risky in work zones, where lane changes, lane closures, uneven pavement and narrow lanes require even greater driver concentration.

Public awareness of the danger posed by cellphone use has grown significantly in the three years since U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood began his crusade against distracted driving. But both surveys and the personal observation of individual drivers show that awareness of the risk hasn’t significantly reduced use.

In a national survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 69 percent said that they had talked on their cellphones while driving within the past 30 days and 24 percent admitted to texting or e-mailing while driving.

Safety researchers have thoroughly explored distracted driving since LaHood began his public campaign.

The National Safety Council reported that drivers using cellphones look but fail to see up to 50 percent of the information in their driving environment. A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study of truck drivers found that they were 163 times more likely to have an accident or near accident if a driver is texting, e-mailing or accessing the Internet.

The New England Journal of Medicine reported that a person using a cellphone when driving is four times more likely to have a crash that will result in going to the hospital.

A NHTSA observational survey determined at a typical daytime moment in 2010 that 5 percent of drivers were using a handheld cellphone. In another NHTSA survey, 77 percent of drivers said they answered a call while driving on at least some driving trips. Not only do they answer, 66 percent also keep driving and 45 percent hold the phone in their hand when they do.

Some of the worst distracted driving crashes have not been caused by passenger vehicle drivers. Investigations of high-profile accidents by the NTSB found that:

●In 2004, a bus driver who was distracted while on his hands-free cellphone struck the underside of an arched stone bridge on the George Washington Parkway in Alexandria. Eleven of the high school students on board were injured.

●In 2008, 25 people died when a commuter train collided with a freight train in California. The commuter train engineer, who had a history of using his cellphone while on duty, ran a red signal while texting.

●In 2010, two people died when a barge being towed by a tugboat in Philadelphia ran over an amphibious boat in the Delaware River. The tugboat mate was distracted by repeated use of a cellphone and laptop computer.

●In 2010, 11 people died in Kentucky when a tractor-trailer crossed the median and collided with a 15-passenger van. The truck driver lost control because he was distracted by his cellphone.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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