Driving while texting on an electronic device is the newest driver distraction danger. A recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) revealed that 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involve some form of driver distraction occurring within three seconds before the vehicle crash. According to the NHTSA and VTTI study, the principal distraction that led to vehicle crashes include:
- Cell phone use.
- Reaching for moving objects inside the vehicle.
- Looking at an object or event outside of the vehicle.
- Reading while driving.
- Applying makeup.
Cell phones with text-messaging capabilities further increase the risk of driver distraction.
In December 2006, a 71-year-old woman was awarded $4.1 million because a company driver ran a red light. He was distracted by his BlackBerry’s navigation, which he was using to help locate his destination, and crashed into the woman, leaving her with serious and permanent injuries. The situation would have been avoided had the driver kept his eyes on the road and both hands on the steering wheel.
Safety Concerns Keep Fleets on Guard
Increasingly, fleet managers rank driver safety among their top two challenges (after the cost of fuel). One reason for heightened concern, fleet managers report, is an increase in preventable accidents, with the root cause of driver distraction. A contributing factor to these preventable accidents is the increased workload of company drivers.
Drivers multitasking while operating their company cars has become a common practice and is a major factor in driver distraction. Use of text messaging while driving is a dangerous habit. Drivers who engage in mobile texting spend about 400-percent more time taking their eyes off the road and are 70-percent less likely to stay in their lane, according to an Australian study.
It is not uncommon to see drivers resting a BlackBerry on top of the steering wheel while using their thumbs to tap in a text message. A driver talking on a cell phone can watch the road, but someone responding to a text message must stare at his or her hands.
In May 2007, the state of Washington passed the nation’s first driving while texting (DWT) ban, followed by New Jersey and the City of Phoenix. Washington’s state legislators took action after a 53-year-old male driver, checking his e-mail, caused a five-car pileup on Interstate 5 outside Seattle in December 2006, said state representative Joyce McDonald. “I was able to use that accident and show it wasn’t just young people doing this.”
California enacted a cell phone law last July prohibiting driving while talking on handheld cell phones. State Senator Joe Simitian of Palo Alto, Calif., subsequently introduced a new bill to ban adult DWT. The state of California already prohibits 16- and 17-year-olds from using any device to talk or text while driving.
“Cell phones are the number one cause of distracted driving accidents in California. And accidents by drivers using handheld cell phones outnumber those driving hands-free by a ratio of something like 15 to one. The difference between hand-held and hands-free is the difference between life and death,” Simitian told Palo Alto Weekly.
In 2007, the City of Phoenix jumped on the DWT ban bandwagon and Scottsdale also is considering such a ban.
Scottsdale Transportation Commission member condemned the practice of DWT, calling it “per se dangerous,” “intolerable,” and “unsafe.”
Bottom Line on Texting & Cell Phone Distractions
Text messaging is fine when you’re sitting at an airport or at home, but not while driving. Fleets need to get ahead of the curve and proactively prohibit this activity. Drivers need to be placed on notice that there is zero tolerance to use these devices while driving a company vehicle. This is not only to safeguard the company and its assets, but also to protect the employee, a company’s greatest asset.