Transportation officials hear about distracted drivers

WASHINGTON - You're driving and glance over as another car passes. To your amazement, the man behind the wheel is talking on a cellular phone - while shaving.

This occurred recently on Interstate 95 near Washington. It's an egregious example of what federal authorities say is a growing problem: drivers doing lots of things besides paying attention to the road.

The proliferation of gadgets like cell phones and mapping systems has exacerbated a problem that has existed since people started driving.

''We are experiencing a dramatic change in driver behavior,'' said Rosalyn Millman, deputy administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. ''If we underestimate this potential risk to highway traffic safety and do not moderate drivers' use of in-vehicle systems, the price may be very steep, indeed.''

NHTSA held a public hearing Tuesday to discuss ways to curb driver distractions. Representatives from the government, auto industry, safety organizations, cellular phone makers and others attended.

The participants agreed little information is available to determine how risky certain distractions can be and what activities are most dangerous.

According to the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety, which has organized a campaign encouraging responsible use of new vehicle technologies, distracted drivers cause at least 4,000 accidents a day and perhaps as many as 8,000.

A 1997 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found talking on a phone while driving quadrupled the risk of an accident and was almost as dangerous as being drunk behind the wheel.

Joseph Tessmer, a NHTSA statistician, estimated 20 percent to 30 percent of fatal accidents are due to distractions, but said it's impossible to know for sure because only a few states document distractions in accident reports.

''Just because we are not collecting data on distractions involved in fatal accidents doesn't mean they aren't there,'' he said.

Joyce White came to the meeting from Florida to tell the story of her 21-year-old daughter, who was killed along with a friend when their car collided with a police car driven by an officer talking on a cell phone.

''My daughter's death demonstrates how lethal driving and telematics can be,'' said White, who did not disclose her hometown. ''I, for one, don't want any other mothers, sisters or friends to go through what I've gone through.''

Some at the meeting called for laws to prevent drivers from using cell phones, mapping systems and other distracting gadgets while the vehicle is in motion. But White said education is a better way to reduce accidents.

Several countries have banned the use of cell phones while driving, but no states have done so. Only California, Florida and Massachusetts have laws limiting cell phone use in moving vehicles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, though dozens of U.S. communities are considering restrictions.

''There's certainly a lot of driver education that needs to take place because there is a lot of new technology coming on the scene,'' Brian Gratch, a marketing director at Motorola Inc., which makes cellular phones, said at the hearing.

Automakers say they are concerned but do not want NHTSA to start regulating what can be installed in new vehicles. They are looking at ways to make gadgets safer, such using voice-activated systems so drivers keep their hands on the wheel.

''Consumers are demanding more in-vehicle communications,'' Vann Wilber of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers told the hearing. ''We believe that vehicles should be designed to allow the minimal chance for driver distractions.''


On the Net: NHTSA has set up a Web site that lets citizens log complaints about distracted drivers. The address is


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