Did you use your phone in the car today? Deborah Hersman, the National Safety Council CEO and former chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, estimates one-tenth of all drivers do, and one-fourth of crashes are linked to using electronic devices.
Washington state supposedly is striving for zero traffic deaths, by 2030, but lawmakers in Olympia this session decided against a step forward in the safety movement.
The Democrat-controlled state House avoided voting on a bill to forbid texting and Web searches on handheld devices while driving, after the Republican-controlled Senate approved it 35-14. The lead sponsor, Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, plans to try again next year.
Last Monday night, a head-on crash in Kent killed one person and injured two others, moments after the driver of a car looked down at a phone, deputies say.
Deborah Hersman, CEO of the National Safety Council, was in Seattle last week to promote Distracted Driving Awareness Month. She estimates one-tenth of all drivers are using their phones, and one-fourth of crashes are linked to use of electronic devices.
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The safety council identified distraction as a threat as far back as 1953, when a film clip urged drivers to create a mental wall against conversations, and to concentrate by imagining road hazards, such as crossing traffic running a stop sign.
Two years ago, Hersman visited here as chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, right after an overheight truck caused a span of the I-5 Skagit River Bridge to collapse.
Here are highlights from last week’s interview:
Q. Is a campaign under way, and what are you trying to accomplish this year?
A.This year, one of the things that we’re doing that’s different is we’re actually trying to reach mothers of young children, because we think they’re receptive to safety messages. We’re trying to reach out to them with a campaign that “Hands Free is Not Risk Free.” We’ve also engaged 20 mommy bloggers, who have no less than 75,000 followers apiece, and asked them to take a challenge to put their phones away and blog about that experience.
Q. Why are you saying “Hands Free is Not Risk Free?”
A. The National Safety Council did a poll last year, and we found that a majority of the public believes that hands-free is safer.
Having your hand on the phone is not necessarily the issue that’s distracting. If it was having your hand occupied, then we would have outlawed stick shifts many years ago, and so it’s not the fact that your hand is engaged in the task. It’s that your brain is distracted by the task.
Forty-six states have texting bans, but no state has a ban on both handheld and hands-free.
There are 30 studies that show that hands-free is the same level of risk as handheld. Human beings are not multitaskers. Our brains are serial processors. You’re really switching back and forth between multiple tasks. Carnegie-Mellon actually did brain scans to show when people are driving [on simulators] and they’re talking on the phone, 37 percent of their brain capacity is diverted.
Q. The province of Alberta funded an ad campaign called “Crotches Kill,” that depicts drivers with a glowing phone between their legs, so they’re not visible to law enforcement. Why are we not seeing this sort of frank discussion more in the U.S.?
A. It’s probably because there are an awful lot of people who are using phones in their car.
We’ve also done some polling. People think other people are bad at talking or texting while they drive. But the problem is if you ask those same people, who support laws prohibiting that — if they have done it, if they’ve talked on the phone, if they’ve texted within the last two weeks or two months, they invariably reply that they have. They feel like somehow they are better at it, they are better drivers, or better at the myth of multitasking, which we know is not the case.
Q. In the Skagit River Bridge case, NTSB investigators found the pilot-car driver was legally using a hands-free phone to talk with her husband.
A. When that pilot car [height-detection pole] hit the bridge, and the antenna is wigwagging, how much situational awareness is there on behalf of that driver, to understand there’s a dangerous situation coming up?
We’ve had crash after crash, investigation after investigation, where we found people on the phone. We found pilots that were on the phone and overflew their destinations. We have barge operators that ran over boats in the middle of the channel because they were distracted by their phones and their laptops. We had bus drivers who were on hands-free cellphone conversations that literally ran into low clearance bridges, took the whole top of a bus off. We had EMS, emergency-medical-services helicopter pilot who was texting while he was transporting a patient, ran out of fuel, crashed the helicopter, killed himself, the patient, two flight paramedics.
There was no profession, no transportation mode that was immune to having people being distracted, while they were responsible for other people’s safety. It was pervasive.
Q.Ray LaHood, former U.S. transportation secretary, suggested laws and automotive design changes, to block drivers from using the Internet. What happened to that?
A. There were no requirements from the Transportation Department or the auto industry that prohibit any particular technology in cars. In fact, all the technology in cars is not tested by government and deemed to be safe. There are no standards.
NHTSA [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] should regulate this. Right now, it’s like the Wild West out there.
Q. If you were testifying to the House Transportation Committee in Olympia, what kind of bill would you recommend?
A. To eliminate all electronic device use, all handheld and hands-free, behind the wheel.
Q. Isn’t there a balancing act, that these devices give people a measure of freedom, so even if there is some safety risk, the government shouldn’t interfere with decisions that mature adults are making inside their vehicles?
A. You know, there was just this story, of someone [in Kent] who had been involved in a crash. They were distracted by their phone.
There’s no reset button. We kill 35,000 people a year on our roadways, and if we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’re going to keep getting what we’ve always gotten.
The woman who was killed in that crash, she was completely innocent. She was just hit by someone who wasn’t doing the right thing.
If the government doesn’t have a responsibility to keep its citizens safe, I don’t know what responsibility would be more important than that.
Q. Is any state making progress in reducing distracted driving?
A. There are a lot of states that are making progress in that they’ve got restrictions on teen drivers, they’ve got texting bans. But I would say as a society, we have not reached that critical turning point where these numbers are really going to change, because we are so addicted to these electronic devices that even when we are behind the wheel, we find it difficult to separate ourselves from them.
At the end of the day, no call, no text, no update is worth a human life.
Q. So if we’re addicted to the devices, and state laws are scattershot, what’s the path to success?
A. There were a lot of people, decades ago, who thought smoking was probably dangerous. [But] it was glamorized in movies and TV shows. There were a lot of people in denial. At some point, the tide turned, and the social balance, of what was good and what was not good, turned. I was working on the Hill, and remember when tobacco money became not welcome, in political circles. People decided that not only did they want to listen to the Surgeon General that smoking wasn’t good for them, but the secondhand smoke was bad.
There absolutely is a path to success, and it’s about society reaching a tipping point where we say, “This isn’t acceptable anymore.”