Time for serious talk on cells and safety

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted12/26/2011 5:00 AM

In case the message hasn't been getting through -- and standing on a mountain of data showing that it hasn't -- the National Transportation Safety Board struck a blow this month that couldn't help but get the attention of American drivers. People should be banned, the NTSB said, from using cellphones at all -- at all -- while driving.

The recommendation was billed as a way to "start the discussion," in the words of a Governors Highway Safety Association spokesman, of how to address the growing problem of distracted driving, We want to advance the discussion as well. In a series of editorials over the coming week, the Daily Herald will examine in depth a behavior that almost overnight has become a feature of our cultural identity -- the ability to chatter, text, Google and tweet away on electronic devices while driving.

 

Our electronics addiction did not so much evolve as explode, so we have arrived at this point in our management of cellular technology without the benefit of much consideration or debate. Where did that get us? Consider these facts from the NTSB, National Safety Council and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

• In 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, nearly one in 10 drivers on the road at any given moment during daylight hours was using some type of phone, hand-held or otherwise.

• More than two-thirds of drivers report talking on their cellphones within the past 30 days, and 24 percent say they have texted or emailed while driving during that period.

• In 2009, 5,474 people were killed in crashes involving driver distraction, and an estimated 448,000 were injured.

• 16 percent of fatal crashes and 20 percent of injury crashes in 2009 involved reports of distracted driving.

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• Drivers using cellphones fail to see up to 50 percent of the information in their driving environment.

• A driver using a cellphone is four times more likely to be involved in a collision requiring hospitalization.

• Teen drivers are more likely than other age groups to be involved in a fatal crash where distraction is reported and in 2009, 16 percent of teen drivers involved in a fatal crash were reported to have been distracted.

More data is compiled every day on the dangers of distracted driving, and, as the NTSB recommendations demonstrate, the discussion is rapidly and necessarily expanding beyond obvious dangers like texting. Nearly all of it tells us that we have to change our behaviors.

It is hard for most of us today to conceive of eliminating entirely our use of cellphones while driving as the NTSB recommends. But, for a behavior whose lethality invites comparisons to drunken and impaired driving, we must at least start talking about what can be accomplished.

Solutions no doubt will require a mix of awareness and legal action. We hope our examination of the subject over the next week -- considering everything from the science of cellphone use to such low-tech distractions as eating and fiddling with the radio -- will help set our suburbs and our state on the mission of finding that balance.