Distracted Driving Needs More Attention

LAST MONTH, two members of Congress took a pioneering step by introducing the first federal legislation to ban handheld cellular phone use while driving. The bills, which face tremendous opposition by the cell phone industry and the American Automobile Association, would require the states to enact restrictions or lose federal highway funds.

The federal lawmaking initiative comes on the heels of a flurry of regulatory efforts at the state level this year. Since the first of the year, 38 states have introduced bills to regulate cell phone use in moving vehicles. However, none of the proposed bans have actually made it into law.

The driving force for the legislative efforts is a realization that vehicle accidents due to distracted driving are on the rise. A new study by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center found that an estimated 284,000 distracted drivers are involved in serious crashes every year.

The UNC study focused on automobile drivers and found that the following factors had contributed to accidents: distractions outside the vehicle (29.4%), adjusting a radio or CD player (11.4%), talking to other occupants (10.9%), adjusting vehicle or climate controls (2.8%), eating or drinking (1.7%), cell phone use (1.5%), and smoking (0.9%).

Concern about distracted driving is growing at a time when an unprecedented number of information technologies are becoming available for commercial trucks. These new systems will put even more distractions into an already busy truck cab.

A large percentage of today's over-the-road trucks are equipped with satellite communication systems, and many drivers carry cell phones and pagers. CB radios are almost standard equipment. Onboard computers and collision avoidance systems are specified by some fleets. A multitude of gauges also compete for attention.

More cab devices are on the way and, ironically, much of this emerging technology is designed to improve safety. Among these systems are rollover warning devices, road hazard alert technologies, lane-change monitors, driver fatigue monitors, night-vision, and satellite navigation systems.

In the not-too-distant future, truck drivers are likely to see the entire windshield turned into a heads-up display that can show every gauge and electronic system in the cab. Onboard Internet systems will become more widely available, giving drivers the ability to log on while underway.

The question becomes: How much is too much? How much information does a driver need to do his job safely, and when does the amount overwhelm a driver? Careful thought needs to go into answering these questions.

Instruction to prevent distracted driving certainly should be part of every tank truck carrier's driver training program. It only takes a split second of inattention for a disaster to occur on today's congested highways.

The trucking industry needs to develop clear, proactive strategies on what types of information and communication systems are needed in the truck cab and how they can be used. If the trucking industry doesn't take the lead, government will.

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