Experts Say 'Distracted Drivers' React to Penalties

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 5, 2009

If Americans fell in love with their cars in the 20th century, their love affair in the 21st is with the cellphone.

There are 136 million cars on the road and 270 million cellphones.

The two are not mixing well.

What to do about it brought 300 experts to a Washington ballroom last week as U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood convened a "distracted driving" conference that focused mostly on text messaging and cellphone conversations while behind the wheel.

According to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, the 636,000 crashes they cause have been blamed for 2,600 deaths, 342,000 injuries and a financial toll of $43 billion each year.

After hearing from 32 panelists, two U.S. senators and LaHood twice, the experts adjourned with greater collective wisdom on the issue but not much in the way of concrete proposals.

If any consensus emerged, it's that government must embrace one strategy to solve the problem: Wield a big stick.

Past campaigns for seat belts and against drunken driving proved Americans do not readily embrace traffic safety initiatives that are in their best interest until they are threatened with punishment.

The "Buckle Up for Safety" jingle caught on three decades ago, but only 13 percent of drivers buckled their belts before the motto shifted to "Click It or Ticket."

The "Don't Drink and Drive" admonitions that came before the crackdown on drunk drivers were widely ignored.

"There's no evidence whatever that responsible-drinking campaigns work," said Chuck Hurley, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and a panelist at the conference. "Asking risk takers to limit their own risk is a proven failure. That's why good laws, well enforced, is the way to go."

With 81 percent of people saying they use cellphones, at any given moment the drivers of 812,000 cars are in mid-conversation on the nation's highways. That's more than one in every 10 vehicles, and research released last week on Beltway drivers in Virginia put the number at one in four.

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