December 15, 2011

An AAA Mid-Atlantic survey of drivers in the Washington region published last week found that more than 200,000 people drive on the Capital Beltway every day. Of those surveyed, many are driving distracted — 56 percent admitted to talking on their phones and 21 percent admitted to recently text­ing behind the wheel.

Distraction is deadly. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data show that crashes attributed to distractions killed 3,092 people last year.

On Tuesday, after completing its investigation of a 2010 highway accident in Gray Summit, Mo., where a pickup driver who had been texting ran into a truck and set off a series of collisions that killed two and injured 38, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued its strongest recommendation yet on distracted driving.

The board called for the 50 states and the District to ban the non-emergency use of portable electronic devices for all drivers. The safety recommendation also urges targeted communication campaigns to inform motorists of the new laws and suggests using NHTSA’s model of high-visibility enforcement to support these bans.

The NTSB has conducted investigations for nearly 10 years into crashes across all modes of transportation that involved distraction from portable electronic devices. The first incident was a February 2002 crash in which a novice driver, distracted by a cellphone conversation, crossed the median on Interstate 95 near Largo, flipped over and landed on a minivan. Five people died. Since that crash, the board has issued almost 20 safety recommendations to eliminate distraction from portable electronic devices in aviation, rail and marine travel and on highways.

The level of distraction will only rise as new handheld devices are released each year and the automotive industry develops ever more sophisticated in-vehicle infotainment systems. A partnership between Intel and Toyota is exploring “ways to integrate vehicles with the home to provide a seamless connection across all areas of people’s lives.”

Yet what is the price of that seamless connection?

It’s too high. Just ask the families of those 3,092 people who died last year.

We are still learning what the human brain can — and cannot — handle. We know that there are four types of driver distraction — visual, aural, manual and cognitive — and that the use of portable electronic devices involves several, if not all. Studies published in 2008 in the journal Brain Research as well as in the Journal of Experimental Psychology show that it is more distracting to engage in a cellphone conversation than it is to talk with a passenger. Studies published as early as 1997 and 2005 have shown that there is little difference between hands-free technology and handheld devices when it comes to cognitive distraction.

Distraction is a complex issue. There are varying degrees, myriad devices and a host of factors. The NTSB intends to convene a forum next year that likely will include traffic safety experts, advocacy organizations and others to focus on distraction, both as it relates to human s and to the technologies built into vehicles.

The second half of the 20th century brought changing societal norms about the dangers of smoking and health. The first half of this century must address distraction and safety.

Maybe someday we will have cars that do the driving for us or devices that will shut down when safety is compromised. But today we know that electronic devices that pull a driver’s attention away from his or her primary task are unsafe.

A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study of commercial drivers published in September 2010 found that a safety-critical event is 163 times more likely if a driver is texting, e-mailing or accessing the Internet.

At the NTSB, our charge is to investigate accidents, learn from them and recommend changes. In Gray Summit and on highways across the United States, thousands of people were killed last year in the blink of an eye. In the typing of a text. In the push of a send button.

Washington residents remember well the 2009 Metro crash on the Red Line in which nine people were killed. The number of fatalities from distractions on U.S. roadways is the equivalent of one Metro crash every day of the year.

It’s time to put a stop to distraction. Just because we can stay connected when we drive does not mean we should.

No call, no text, no update is worth a human life.

The writer is chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.