DISTRACTED DRIVER AWARENESS CAMPAIGNS: DO THEY WORK?
This is a student blog post. Nothing in this blog should be construed to be legal advice or to establish a lawyer/client relationship. The post here represents the views of the person posting, and not SIU or any of its employees.
By Eric Vernsten
“On June 13, 2007, I lost my father, John Slighting. He loved parties and he loved having his friends around. He was a firefighter, he served in the Army. He was a friend; he was a great, great man. He was an avid, avid motorcyclist, and the night he was killed he was in a helmet and his safety chaps. He has been riding as long as I can remember. My dad was coming home from work, and the girl rolled through a stop sign while she was talking to her mother on the phone. My dad hit the side of her car, and flew over and landed on the asphalt. I don’t know how she didn’t see him, but we found out later she was on her cell phone and she was distracted. My sisters each have children; I have a son, who will never know their grandfather, and he was such an incredible person. My younger sister was pregnant with twins; he never got to see them. My fondest memory of my father is being a little girl and him taking me out to Lake Michigan to go fishing. My dad won’t be able to teach my son that.”
- Charlene Slighting, daughter of John Slighting.
Stories like that of John Slighting have been occurring with disturbing frequency across the United States of America over the past decade. John Slighting was a victim of distracted driving (for more information on distracted driving, please visit www.salvilaw.com). Distracted driving has become an epidemic in the United States. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), over 16,000 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver from 2008 to 2012. In 2011 alone, there were 387,000 accidents caused by distracted driving. Distracted driving has been defined by the U.S. government’s distracted driving awareness website, distraction.gov, as, “any activity that could divert a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving.” Distracted driving includes such activities as: texting, using a cell phone or smart phone, eating and drinking, talking to passengers, grooming, reading (including maps), using a navigation system, watching a video, adjusting a radio, CD player, or MP3 player.” Over the past decade, the U.S. federal government and states have made a concerted effort to end this epidemic. Have these programs made a difference in combating distracted driving?
AWARENESS AND ENFORCEMENT
The United States Government has taken very proactive steps to increase awareness of distracted driving, starting with their website, distraction.gov. The website contains statistics about distracted driving, stories of those who have been affected by this tragedy (such as that of John Slighting), and many different ways for individuals and groups to get involved with solving this grave issue. The website includes an interactive map where individuals can see what specific laws their state has enacted to combat distracted driving, as well as a section on the various regulations passed with the recommendation of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The federal regulations cover federal employees, and, according to distraction.gov, are a multi-modal effort that includes automobiles, trains, planes, and commercial vehicles. In 2009, President Obama signed an executive order directing federal employees to not send text messages while driving government vehicles, when using electronic equipment supplied by the government while driving, or while driving privately owned vehicles when conducting government business. In addition, commercial truck and bus drivers, drivers of hazardous materials, rail employees, and pilots have had bans or restrictions on cell phone usage applied to them.
States have been proactive in attempting to solve the distracted driving problem as well. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), as of March 27, 2013,: ten states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands all prohibit drivers from using handheld cell phones while driving. Although no state bans all cell phone use for all drivers, 34 states and the District of Columbia ban all cell phone use by novice drivers. School bus drivers in 19 states and the District of Columbia may not use a cell phone when passengers are present. In addition, text messaging is banned for all drivers in 39 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Many localities have passed their own distracted driving laws, such as not being allowed to use a cell phone in a school zone.
States have made great strides to combat distracted driving through other avenues as well. According to the GHSA report, distracted driving has emerged as a priority for State Highway Safety Offices, with 27 states plus the District of Columbia and Guam having distracted driving in their strategic highway safety plans, and an additional seven states indicating that they’ve held summits or had special task forces on distracted driving. From 2003 to 2010, the number of states collecting information about distraction as a factor in crashes more than doubled, from 17 to 43; 23 states have created special materials on distractions for teenage drivers, and 37 states and the District of Columbia indicated they have public information/education campaigns on distracted driving. In addition, 15 states and the District of Columbia reported using social media networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to promote anti-distracted driving messages. Finally, 35 states indicated they have worked with other state agencies and private employers to address distracted driving.
According to the NHTSA, between 2008 and 2012, there were 1,766,000 injuries from car crashes involving distracted drivers. The total number of deaths from distracted driving-related crashes totaled 17,942. The statistics show that there have been significant decreases both in the number of injuries and the number of deaths from distracted driving. In 2008, there were 515,000 injuries from distracted driving, whereas in 2011 there were 387,000. The number of deaths dropped from 5,870 in 2008 to 3,331 in 2011. Overall, the number of injuries have decreased dramatically each year, whereas the number of deaths had a sharp drop from 2009 to 2010 (5,474 to 3,267), but then increased from 2010 to 2011 (3,267 to 3,331).
Based on the numbers alone, it appears that distracted driving campaigns have been effective in reducing the overall number amount of accidents, injuries, and lives. A great comparison can be made between distracted driving and drunken driving statistics, especially since distracted driving is just as dangerous as drinking and driving. An analysis of drunken driving fatalities over a 20 year span, during which legislation, enforcement and drunken driving awareness all increased, shows that the distracted driving numbers maybe following a similar positive trend to the decrease in drinking and driving.
According to centurycouncil.org, from 1991 to 2010, drunken driving fatalities in the United States decreased 35%, from 15,827 in 1991 to 10,228 in 2010. During this span, the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) had their 11th anniversary (in 1991), and drunk driving became a more prominent public issue. Looking at the 20 years, there were four instances where the number of deaths increased from the previous year (1994 to 95; 1998 to 99; 1999 to 2000; and 2001 to 02). There were also two drastic downturns in loss of life: a 1,778 decrease from 1991 to 92, and a 694 drop in deaths from 1996 to 1997. These statistics seem similar to those of distracted driving, where there was a drastic drop in deaths between 2009 and 2010, and a small increase from 2010 to 2011. More than just a drop in the number of deaths, drinking and driving has decreased because of better legislation, better judicial enforcement, and better cultural awareness to the problem.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood summed this up very well, saying in 2010, “decades of experience with drunk driving have taught us it takes a consistent combination of education, effective enforcement, a committed judiciary, and collective efforts by local, state, and national advocates to put a dent in the problem.”
Overall, it appears that distracted driver campaigns have reduced the amount of accidents, injuries, and fatalities from distracted driving. Distracted driving appears to be following a similar statistical and cultural awareness path to that of drinking and driving. However, as Ray LaHood said, it is going to take a concerted effort through multiple fronts to make a truly significant dent in distracted driving, and just like with drunken driving, this will take time. However, the future already appears brighter and distracted driver campaigns seem to be saving more lives each and every day.