September 28, 2009 8:00 AM, EDT

Combating Distracted Driving

This Editorial appears in the Sept. 28 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

The Department of Transportation will host a two-day summit this week on problems surrounding distracted driving and solutions to combat what has become a national epidemic.

It will be interesting to hear the various parties evaluate the situation and testify about what they think needs to be done. The meeting will be held Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 in Washington.

Most of us are aware that distracted driving is a safety issue, and one that continues to grow with the proliferation of information aimed at the driver. Juggling food and beverages while driving is hardly the only risky behavior that leads to crashes. Anything that draws the driver’s attention away from the road for as little as three seconds, researchers say, is fraught with danger. That includes the misuse of essential personal communication devices. Little doubt that frivolous text messages and ill-timed phone calls will be targeted by those attending DOT’s summit.

This is a case where the devil really is in the details. Everything from increasingly popular animated maps to automatic messages from the communication units on our vehicles that warn of engine anomalies and maintenance issues can be a distraction. Even so-called green cars, such as the Toyota Prius, add potential distractions with their display panels showing fuel efficiency and battery charge levels in real time.

American Trucking Associations applauds Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood for moving to combat the distraction problem. As ATA President Bill Graves said, “Improving driver performance by eliminating distractions, including those caused by text-messaging, will greatly improve the safety of all motorists.”

The National Transportation Safety Board, during the Bush administration, recommended addressing cell-phone use by commercial drivers. But a delicate balance is needed.

ATA supports legislation proposed by several senators to ban reading, writing and sending text messages at all times while operating a vehicle.

Meanwhile, we urge the federal government not to outlaw reasonable and prudent use of in-cab devices that help manage fleet operations or enable truck fleets to communicate with their drivers.

We believe it’s possible to adopt rules that will control the dangers of information overload while allowing us to reap the benefits of the systems. Together, regulators and the regulated surely can find a way to limit safety hazards, while permitting the benefits of new technologies to make us more efficient.