DOT Reaffirms "Rampage" Against Distracted Driving "Epidemic"

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(Alex Goldmark, Transportation Nation) U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood reaffirmed that distracted driving will remain front and center in theĀ  DOT's safety campaigns. At a press conference in Washington today, LaHood again referred to distracted driving as an "epidemic" and hinted at further public-private partnerships to combat the phenomenon.

LaHood said, "We've been on a rampage against distracted driving for nearly two years," adding that "we can and must address all three: driver, automobile, and roadway safety."

US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood

The message seemed to be that the DOT will not forget about dangerous driver practices while the agency also pursues more conventional safety initiatives, like improving automobile crash performance and safer roadway planning.

The data support that approach. Drivers who text are 23 times more likely to be in a crash, and an estimated 1.4 million-- 23 percent of motor vehicle crashes -- involve drivers using cell phones, according to the anti-distracted driving organization FocusDriven. While other behaviors may be more dangerous, the group says, cell phone use contributes to the greatest number of crashes.

And that's why LaHood has made distracted driving something of a pet issue for him. He said he would work with auto makers as well. "We need to help the automobile manufacturers ... we believe (they) can be partners with us." He wants them to devote some advertising money to anti-distracted driving commercials, in the same way Suburu has, and he plans to ask them to do so in the coming weeks.

During the past 16 months, LaHood said, "we've made a lot of progress." He cited as successes the 30 state laws banning texting behind the wheel, the eight states that have banned hand-held cell phone use altogether, and several other regulations -- including one preventing federal employees from using cell phones while driving, and banning commercial bus drivers from texting while driving. "Good laws and good enforcement works," he said. In response to a question he said, "I do think a national law is a good idea."

The DOT has created as its online site for stats, media, and an anti-distracted driving video series, along with literature for schools and local communities. The DOT is also working with local governments, as well as various advocacy and awareness organizations, including FocusDriven, which was founded one year ago today.

Jennifer Smith, founder of the DOT-supported FocusDriven, said her organization will expand its activities in 2011 by creating victims' support groups, a speakers bureau to spread the word about the impact of distracted driving, and other initiatives to put more victims of distracted driving in front of the public.

"We need to address all distraction, not just texting," Smith said who lost a family member to distracted driving. She cited research that hands-free cell phone use is actually not any safer than any other form of talking on the phone while driving. "If our brains cannot process what our eyes are seeing, then we are not safe." She will be working to expand laws banning cell phone use while driving over the next year. "It's easier to change this behavior than most think," she added.

Bill Windsor, chairman of the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS), a public-private partnership founded in the 1980s to promote traffic safety, said that companies with anti-electronic-device-while-driving policies had the lowest crash rates, according to a survey by his organization. He said 20.2 million employees participated in 2010 "Drive Safely Work Week" -- an education and outreach effort by the DOT and NETS.