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LaHood: Distracted Driving ‘An Epidemic In America’

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When looking at traffic-fatality figures, there’s some good and some bad: The good is that, as we reported last week, U.S. traffic fatalities dropped in 2009, to the lowest rate since 1950, when adjusted for the overall vehicle miles traveled. The bad is that we’re still losing thousands of lives a year to distraction—and cellphones (if not considering eating, drowsiness, and other reasons) are typically seen as the culprit.

Yesterday, the federal government released figures pertaining to distraction and fatalities, and there’s not much evidence of improvement. At face value, distraction-related fatalities dropped as well—to 5,474 lives in 2009. But looking more closely, they actually remain at the same percentage, of about 16 percent—up from ten percent in 2005. Overall, more than 20 percent of all crashes in 2009 were related to distraction.

At last year’s Distracted Driving Summit, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood aimed to raise awareness about the subject, and he succeeded. Beginning today, federal and state officials, as well as insurance and auto-industry officials, researchers, and safety advocates, will again meet in Washington, D.C. for the second Distracted Driving Summit.

This year the mood is a bit different, and it sounds like automakers—or at least lobbyists representing the automakers—might be on the defensive.

Currently, 28 states ban cellphone use by beginning drivers—some as part of so-called graduated driver licensing schemes. Eight states have all-out band on hand-held use of cellphones, while 30 have bans on handheld texting.

"These numbers show that distracted driving remains an epidemic in America, and they are just the tip of the iceberg," said Secretary LaHood. "Tomorrow, I'm convening our second Distracted Driving Summit in the hopes that we can continue to draw attention to the dangers of distracted driving and work together to save lives."

With mounting evidence that cognitive distraction plays a significant role, and increasingly tight state legislation in the works, automakers are growing worried about crackdowns on all cellphone use by drivers—not just handheld use. According to the Detroit News, the Governors Highway Safety Association will next weekend consider a California proposal to ban all cellphone use—including text messaging and hands-free voice use—in vehicles.

Sync, which allows voice control and hands-free operation of phones, smartphones, and media players, connected via Bluetooth or USB, has become a strong market advantage and strong selling point for Ford.

Although automakers haven’t been openly opposing such measures to ban cellphone use, they’ve reportedly been strongly lobbying against it behind the scenes, and the powerful trade group that represents the Detroit automakers plus Toyota—the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers—has opposed those looking for a ban.

And in an unfortunate footnote, the Detroit News also reported a suspected distracted-driving accident, just yesterday, in which a Ford Focus rear-ended a tractor-trailer at about 70 mph—with no sign of braking. Cellphones were yet to be analyzed.

[NHTSA]

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