By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; A06
Twenty-eight percent of traffic accidents occur when people talk on cellphones or send text messages while driving, according to a study released Tuesday by the National Safety Council.
The vast majority of those crashes, 1.4 million annually, are caused by cellphone conversations, and 200,000 are blamed on text messaging, according to the report from the council, a nonprofit group recognized by congressional charter as a leader on safety.
Because of the extent of the problem, federal transportation officials unveiled a organization Tuesday, patterned after Mothers Against Drunk Driving, that will combat driver cellphone use. The group, FocusDriven, grew out of a meeting on distracted driving sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation in the District last year.
Virtually everyone owns a cellphone, and it's evident to anyone who drives regularly that huge numbers of people, including some who support a ban, use them while driving. Persuading people to break that habit could be a tall order for FocusDriven.
"It's hard because everyone's addicted to their cellphone," said FocusDriven's president, Jennifer Smith, a Texan whose mother was killed by a man who ran a red light while talking on his cellphone. "That's where we come in. We put a real, human face to it. We're going to put the pressure on legislatures."
Enforcement of a texting ban requires officers to observe an act that usually is conducted in a driver's lap, and hands-free devices make it possible to talk on cellphones without being observed. More than 120 studies of cellphone use suggest that using hands-free devices doesn't eliminate the distraction caused by a phone conversation.
"It's not easy to enforce [a ban], but it's not impossible," said Chuck Hurley, executive director of MADD, who attended Tuesday's announcement of the new group's formation. "The main reason people talk on their cellphones is because they can. Eventually, [signal blocking] technology will address that."
Smith said law enforcement needs stronger laws and better tools to enforce them.
"Using a subpoena to get cellphone records has got to be a standard procedure," she said. "Perhaps cars should have a data recorder, like [an airplane's] crash recorder to use in these cases."
Whether the political will to enforce bans on cellphone use while driving exists is another matter.
Bans on text messaging while driving illustrate the challenge. Nineteen states and the District have banned it, but in four of those states, Virginia, New York, Washington and Louisiana, the laws require that an officer have some other primary reason for stopping a vehicle.
"That makes it impossible for police to enforce it effectively," said Illinois state Sen. John J. Cullerton (D), a leading traffic safety advocate. "It's a convenient way to compromise and get bills passed in state legislatures."
Hurley put it more bluntly:
"Secondary enforcement is a huge problem," he said. "It is a sign of weak politicians. It saves very few lives."
Maryland bans drivers sending text messages but allows drivers to read them or enter phone numbers in their cellphones. Virginians stopped by police are off the hook if they say they were dialing a phone number or using a GPS device on their phone.
The challenge of legislating cellphone use by drivers is greater than similar auto safety initiatives such as those in favor of seat belts and child car seat use or against drunken driving. In each of those instances, the public safety issue was more clearly understood and, ultimately, enforcement led drivers to comply.
Hurley, who spent 21 years with the National Safety Council before joining MADD, has been involved with virtually all major traffic safety campaigns for more than three decades.
His experience suggests that new laws and educational campaigns, such as trumpeting the startling numbers the National Safety Council released Tuesday, don't provide sufficient incentive for most drivers to change their habits.
"A lot of goodwill is created, and people die just the same," he said. "Education alone is a proven failure. Education and enforcement are a success."
He cites seat belt use as an example. The "Buckle Up for Safety" campaign was well received, but only 13 percent of drivers complied. The "Click It or Ticket" campaign has been much more effective, he said.
Public campaigns featuring mothers whose children died in crashes where drinking was a factor caught public attention, but the Operation Strikeforce efforts that employed sobriety checkpoints hammered home the consequences of drunken driving.
Hurley said the best first step for FocusDriven will be to get employers to ban use of text messaging and cellphones when driving. President Obama last year imposed a texting ban on all federal employees while using government vehicles or using government-issued phones in their own vehicles.