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D.C. area poll confirms worries about distracted driving

By Ashley Halsey III and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 4, 2010; A01

A sport-utility vehicle drifts into your lane going 70 miles an hour. A car dawdles along the Capital Beltway at 40 in the fast lane. The tires might be on the road, but the driver's mind is elsewhere, perhaps deep in a conversation with somebody, somewhere, and that's putting your life at risk.

Fully 80 percent of area adults often see distracted driving, with reports of such behavior surging in the past five years, according to a new Washington Post poll. Nearly one-quarter of respondents said they e-mail, text or use the Internet while driving, and 16 percent said they regularly don't pay enough attention behind the wheel.

For David Grier, it's the oblivious drivers he encounters during his commute on Interstate 66. For Ted Yates, it's the text-messaging motorists he has seen ram cars from behind at College Park intersections.

"It's a huge problem," said Grier, 52, a McLean resident who drives into the District for a State Department job. "I see lots of people getting cut off by people who aren't paying attention, and I get cut off myself."

In the poll, more than two-thirds of respondents said they often witness overly aggressive driving, but just one in eight considers his or her own driving too aggressive. Almost everyone in the poll reported seeing area drivers frequently clutching cellphones, and nearly three-quarters regularly observe drivers typing on mobile devices.

"I see people texting with the cellphone on top of the steering wheel," said Yates, 22, a student. "People will come up on a stop sign or traffic light and rear-end the car in front."

Distracted driving is a national problem that plays out intensely on the congested roads in and around Washington. Nationwide, it is estimated that distracted driving causes 1.4 million crashes each year.

More than half of area drivers talk on the phone while mired in traffic, according to the poll, something the National Safety Council, a nonprofit advocacy group, emphatically reports takes "your mind off the road." The vast majority of those ages 18 to 29 talk on the phone while driving, the poll found, a figure that slips all the way to 15 percent among seniors.

Forty percent of young adults text, e-mail or use the Web while in traffic, according to the poll, compared with 21 percent of those ages 30 to 64 and 3 percent of those 65 and older.

Almost everyone polled -- including those younger than 30 -- said sending or reading texts or e-mails while driving should be illegal. But there are big gaps in opinion on the use of cellphones for their original purpose: talking.

About three-quarters of area respondents said it should be illegal for people to talk on hand-held cellphones while driving, but nearly as many, about seven in 10, see hands-free devices as all right to use on the road.

The District forbids drivers to use hand-held cellphones on its streets; Maryland is considering such a prohibition.

Multi-tasking as 'myth'

In a white paper released last week, the National Safety Council attempted to debunk the idea that hands-free phones allow drivers to remain alert and focused. Drawing on almost three dozen studies, the council's report underscored that any form of cellphone use behind the wheel is problematic.

"Hands-free phones offer no safety benefit when driving," the report says. "Widespread education is needed about the risks of hands-free devices."

The report describes a Michigan accident in which a woman struck and killed a 12-year-old boy. She was looking at the road ahead, not dialing, texting or looking down, witnesses said.

"A classic case of inattention blindness caused by the cognitive distraction of a cellphone conversation," the NSC report says. The report says that multi-tasking "is a myth" and that human brains "do not perform two tasks at the same time" but switch "between one task and another."

The report also provides insight into why Washington area drivers might recognize the risk posed by distracted drivers but conclude that their own cellphone use doesn't contribute to the problem. "Even when people are aware of the risks, they tend to believe they are more skilled than other drivers, and many still engage in driving behaviors they know are potentially dangerous," the NSC report says.

The increasing number of distractions inside vehicles and statistics that show the financial cost and loss of life have resulted in a growing backlash against distracted driving.

"Distracted driving is dangerous, and it's an epidemic. That's why I have been on such a rampage about this," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "We know that if we can get people to put their cellphones and other electronic devices away when they get in the car, we can prevent thousands of needless deaths and injuries."

The eight in 10 Washington area respondents who reported that other drivers regularly don't pay attention is little changed from a 2005 Post poll. But the number seeing such inattention "very often" jumped from 49 percent five years ago to 61 percent.

LaHood, who has made distracted driving a focus of his tenure, has been clear that he sees all forms of cellphone use as a highway hazard. His blog has provided him with a frequent forum with which to stress that point.

"Studies of cognitive distraction tell us that it's not about where your hands are, but where your head is," he wrote two months ago.

More distractions

Texting and talking aren't the only distractions to which local drivers owned up in The Post poll.

Almost everyone polled said they listen to music or the radio while in stop-and-go traffic. More than four in 10 have a meal; more than one in eight women put on makeup. A scant 3 percent of respondents said they read a newspaper, book or magazine.

The distracted driving controversy may have begun with the car radio, invented just before the Great Depression hit. Automotive writer K.A. Hathaway rose to defend it against critics -- "anti-auto radio propagandists," he called them -- in 1930.

"Propagandists believe such a program as a baseball or football broadcast will . . . distract the driver," Hathaway wrote in The Post. "Suffice to say that anyone who can become so enthusiastic over an event of that nature as to forget the steering wheel does not deserve to be granted a . . . license."

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