On August 5, 2010, a pickup truck driver was travelling down a Missouri interstate. The pickup driver was following behind a truck-tractor. The pickup driver failed to see the truck-tractor slow for a construction zone. The pickup truck rear-ended the truck-tractor. The pickup truck was then rear-ended by a school bus that was, in turn, rear-ended by a second school bus. Two people died and 38 others were injured in the pileup.
The National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”), an independent federal agency charged with determining the probable cause of transportation accidents and promoting transportation safety, investigated the Missouri crash. The NTSB’s investigation revealed that the pickup truck driver sent and received 11 text messages in the 11 minutes preceding the accident with the last text being received just moments before the impact.
The Missouri crash was the last in a series of NTSB investigated accidents since 2002 which appeared to have been caused by distracted driving. As a result of data obtained in those investigations, along with the exponential growth in the use of cell phone and portable electronic devices (“PED”), the NTSB has now made an unprecedented call for a nationwide ban on use of cell phones and PED’s while driving. According to the NTSB, “no call, no text, no update is worth a human life.”
Research shows that humans cannot multitask because we are biologically incapable of processing two attention-rich inputs at the same time. (http://brainrules.blogspot.com/2008/03/brain-cannot-multitask_16.html) What we think of as multitasking is really jumping from one task to the next. Our minds prepare to focus on a task, engage in the first task, disengage from that task to engage in a second task, prepare to focus on the second task, engage in the second task, then disengage from the second to re-engage in the first. Each “switch” takes several tenths of a second to perform.
Driving while talking on a cell phone has been compared by some to drunk driving. According to the link cited above, the reaction time of a person using a cell phone while driving is a half-second slower than normal and cell-phone users miss more than half of the visual cues that would be seen by attentive drivers.
Many states have responded to the research on distraction by passing laws that restrict the use of cell phones and the practice of text messaging while driving. Nine states prohibit all drivers from using handheld cell phones. No state bans all cell phone use for all drivers, but many prohibit cell phone use by certain drivers. For example, 30 states ban all cell phone use by novice drivers (ages 16 to 19) and 19 ban use by school bus drivers. 35 states prohibit text messaging for all drivers, an additional seven prohibit it for novice drivers and three prohibit it for school bus drivers. (http://www.ghsa.org/html/stateinfo/laws/cellphone_laws.html)
Alabama, Florida and Georgia, the three states that most of the people reading this drive in, have different laws on the subject. Alabama bans cell phone use and text messaging for 16 year-olds and some 17-year-olds. Florida does not have any type of ban. Georgia bans cell phone use for those under 18 and school bus drivers and bans text messaging for all drivers.
There is a move afoot by some members of Congress to coerce states into passing cell phone restrictions. One approach uses a stick and the other a carrot. Senator Chuck Schumer has proposed “The ALERT Drivers Act” which would instruct the Secretary of Transportation to withhold 25% of a state’s federal highway funding if the state does not enact a texting ban. Senator Jay Rockefeller has proposed “The Distracted Driver Prevention Act” which provides grants to states that enact distracted driving laws.
Some groups have come out against cell phone bans. The National Center for Public Policy and Research, a conservative think tank and policy institute, has published an article suggesting that such laws are indicative of a “Nanny State on Steroids.” According to that group, knee-jerk abolitionist bans on cell phone use are another form of big government intrusion into individual liberties. (http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA629.html)
A driver is required to watch the road and see what is there to be seen. If the driver does not, even for an instant, other people can be injured or killed as a result. Whether or not a nationwide ban on cell use and texting while driving ever occurs, it would be wise for each of us to take notice of the overwhelming scientific evidence that tells us we are not multitaskers and stop engaging in distracting activities that put others at risk.