By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 5, 2009; B01
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.
The only way to get people to drive more responsibly -- to wear seat belts, drive sober, stop texting or even stop cell calls -- is to pass enforceable laws and then make a big show of cracking down, experts said.
"What works is high-visibility enforcement," said Vernon Betkey, chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association, who retired after 25 years as a Maryland state trooper.
Text messaging, which takes eyes off the road and hands off the steering wheel, is banned in the District and 18 states, including Maryland and Virginia. Other states are expected to follow, particularly since recent research by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that truckers were 23 times more likely to crash when they sent text messages. That was the first study of texting based on data gathered from observing drivers in real-life situations rather than laboratories.
"That's not a risk you can afford to allow," said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
"Obviously, texting is in a category unto itself in terms of risk," said Hurley, who spent decades with the Insurance Institute and the National Safety Council before taking the helm at MADD. "Everybody, including the cellphone industry, realizes that a ban on texting is unstoppable."
But in some states, notably Maryland and Virginia, those bans were so watered down by the legislatures that police have little incentive to enforce them.
Maryland bans sending text messages but allows drivers to read them or enter phone numbers in their cellphones, giving anyone who wants to deny that they were texting an easy out. In Virginia, texting is a secondary offense, which means an officer who observes it has to stop the driver for some other reason. And Virginians are off the hook if they say they were dialing a phone number or using a GPS device on their phone.
"That's a disgrace," Hurley said. "It's a way for legislators to look good without doing good."
Both the House and the Senate are considering legislation that would require states to ban texting or e-mailing while driving or risk losing 25 percent of their annual federal highway funding, a strategy similar to the one used to induce states to lower drunken driving limits. The bills would require the Transportation Department to establish minimum penalties that must be included in state laws.
President Obama last week banned federal employees from texting while driving government cars or in their own cars when using government cellphones or on government business. The move was saluted by those who hope private employers will follow suit.
"Any employer who limits the restrictions to just texting and a requirement for hands-free needs a new lawyer," Hurley said. "The liability is huge for any employer who doesn't restrict it across the board."
Technology might provide some answers. Several private firms turned up at the conference to tout products that restrict texting or cellphone use. But Lund pointed out that "inventors are going to come up with more and more ways to distract us in the car."
Rather than police all of it, he suggested that the answer might lie in technology that keeps vehicles from crashing.
"Somebody who is distracted for two seconds may be reminded by the car that they are weaving in the lane or that traffic ahead has slowed or stopped," he said.
Research has shown that just talking on a cellphone puts a driver at a four-times-greater risk of crashing and that hands-free devices, which are required in the District, don't lower that risk.
Given those findings and vast cellphone use, the experts are puzzled by the fact that overall crash rates haven't increased dramatically, too. Without statistics to show that, persuading drivers -- and legislators -- not to use cellphones becomes more problematic, even considering the current impact.
"If it's not causing additional crashes, then banning it isn't going to reduce crashes," Lund said. "The risk of talking on a cellphone is real, but it's entirely possible that it's replacing some other risky behavior."
If hundreds of millions of drivers are to be persuaded to put aside their cellphones, the experts say they will need to be hit over the head with overwhelming evidence of the danger -- plus publicity and the threat of a penalty.
"Remember that drunks once were presented as funny people, good for jokes on Johnny Carson," Lund said. "When MADD came along, they changed that by showing the faces" of the dead and grieving. "It not only came to be seen as a risk by people, but it became an immoral risk. That really supported a culture that allowed changes in the law."
After years of observation -- before joining MADD, he worked on campaigns for seat belts, a national 55 mph speed limit and air bags, among others -- Hurley says people simply aren't rational in evaluating risk.
"At the end of the day, the public gets the degree of highway safety it wants," he said. "The public perception of risk in an automobile is low. You feel like you're in your living room. Most times when you drive stupidly, you don't get hurt or killed. It's like playing Russian roulette with a 1,000-round revolver."
Betkey wondered whether the drivers are willing to let their love of car and cellphone end in divorce.
"People recognize this as a hazard," he said. "Whether they're willing to give it up is another question."