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The City of Columbus, Ohio, prohibits all cell phone use. “The distractions aren't always while talking,” says Fleet Management Division Safety Program Manager Terrell Spencer, citing a driver who was involved in an incident while reaching for a dropped phone. Photo: jabejon | iStockphoto.com

By Paul Abelson

No one disputes that distracted driving is a major cause of vehicle crashes. Most states have passed laws banning texting, and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray La-Hood has issued federal regulations banning texting while operating a commercial vehicle.

Do these steps go too far? Are we painting all communications with the same broad brush, overlooking aspects that promote convenience, efficiency, and safety? Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board proposed a ban on all cell phone use while driving — but is a total ban necessary?

At last September's Society of Automotive Engineers Commercial Vehicle Meeting, Richard Hanowski, director of the Center for Truck & Bus Safety at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, revealed significant data that could help answer such questions. His paper, “The Naturalistic Study of Distracted Driving: Moving from Research to Practice,” which covered research conducted over several years, was the association's prestigious Buckendale Lecture award winner in 2011.

While most previous studies used simulations or had student observers record actions and anomalies, the Center for Truck & Bus Safety used video recordings in specially equipped trucks to examine driver behavior while operating commercial vehicles.

Instrumentation identified changes in steering, braking, and acceleration, while recordings presented simultaneous split-screen views of the driver's head, steering wheel and dash, out the windshield, and left and right rear-view mirrors.

The researchers identified where drivers' attention was directed, when their hands were on or off the steering wheel, what was happening around the vehicle, and — perhaps most importantly — existing distractions.

They then examined driver behavior, breaking down actions into subsets. For example, cell phone use was parsed into text messaging, dialing a handheld phone, talking or listening on a hand-held phone, and talking or listening on a hands-free phone.

Results of texting and dialing

Two hundred drivers making thousands of trips over more than 3 million miles were sufficient to produce results with confidence levels of 95%. The combined research involved 211,171 incidents of distraction, resulting in 1,085 crashes; 8,375 near-crashes; and 30,661 crash-relevant conflicts or situations that required drivers to make unsafe or illegal maneuvers.

As expected, when texting while driving, the likelihood of an accident is more than 23 times greater than normal. When dialing a handheld cell phone, there's about a six times greater chance — almost as high as looking at a map (seven times).

Once a call is made, though, talking or listening on a handheld phone carries about the same likelihood of an accident as no distraction. With a hands-free phone, an event is less than half as likely. In fact, taking a drink or smoking is twice as risky as using a hands-free phone.

Using the data to improve safety

These findings could be interpreted in a number of different ways.

You could prohibit drivers and operators from using any communications device behind the wheel. Or you can be selective in allowing, or even requiring, particular accessories.

Bluetooth wireless or wired hands-free earpieces can provide relatively safe communications, as can push-to-talk radios — especially when limited to business-related use. Fleets that have not already done so should switch from maps or paper turn-by-turn directions to electronic GPS navigation devices that provide audible directions.

Terrell Spencer is safety program manager for the City of Columbus, Ohio, Fleet Management Division. He prohibits all cell phone use while operating a motor vehicle.

“There are sufficient studies about the hazards of distracted driving, and the distractions aren't always while talking,” he says. He recalls a case in which a driver was involved in an incident while reaching for a dropped phone.

The City of Edina, Minn., uses Nextel push-to-talk combination cell phone/radios. But after the I-35W bridge failure in Minneapolis, they're moving to 800 MHz radios.

“There was no cell phone service after the bridge collapsed; providers were completely overloaded,” explains Fleet Supervisor Greg Bretson. With the statewide 800 MHz network, his operation will have contact with police, fire fighters, and other city, county, and state services and departments.

Their 800 MHz radios use coiled cord microphones, some with built-in speakers. They're similar to CB microphones or police radio units. The distraction factor should be about the same as with CB use: roughly half the chance of involvement as an undistracted driver, according to the Center for Truck & Bus Safety.

To obtain a copy of the Buckendale Lecture (Paper #2011-01-2305), visit http://papers.sae.org or call 877-606-7323.

— Paul Abelson (truckwriter@wowaccess.net) is a former director of the Technology and Maintenance Council (TMC) of the American Trucking Associations, a board member of Truck Writers of North America, and active in the Society of Automotive Engineers.