Distracted Driving Deaths a ‘9/11 Event Every Year,’ Official Says

Road safety advocates likened the estimated 3,600 people killed in distracted driving incidents each year to the 2001 terror attack and called for stronger laws to prevent drivers from using electronic devices.

by Dug Begley, Houston Chronicle / April 12, 2019
Shutterstock/Andrey_Popov

(TNS) — Road safety advocates in Houston Thursday said an all-out blitz of stricter laws, tougher enforcement, driver education and incentives is needed to combat a growing epidemic of distracted drivers that is killing an estimated 3,600 people annually across America.

“That is a 9/11 event every year,” said Lt. Craig Cummings with the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The problem is especially pronounced in Houston, which a study released Wednesday found was the most distracted metropolitan area behind the wheel.

Police, trucking industry representatives, victims of distracted driving crashes and regional officials joined the National Transportation Safety Board for a roundtable discussion Thursday at Houston Food Bank. Broadcast nationally as part of the NTSB’s efforts during Distracted Driving Month, the session was intended to solicit ideas for reducing distracted driving in a climate that sometimes treats it as a minor issue and laws aimed at curtailing it as nanny-state rule-making.

“Killing and injuring others is not about personal freedom,” said Bruce Landsberg, vice-chairman of the NTSB, who led the five-hour session.

Panelists reached a broad consensus that phone use was addictive for some drivers, and tougher laws, technology improvements and cultural changes to driving are needed. That includes holding family members accountable when they misuse phones while driving, and expecting lawmakers and technology companies to do everything they can to prevent tragedies with tougher laws or phones that disable themselves in the driver’s seat.

“If you agree this is the right thing to do, do it,” Landsberg said. “You are impacting other people’s lives, permanently. And it happens in the thousands. And it is costing all of us.”

Fort Worth resident Jennifer Zamora, who lost her husband in a 2007 crash when a distracted driver hit him head-on as he drove down a California highway, said people need to treat distraction as seriously as they do drunken or drugged driving, both in terms of the legal penalties and the societal stigma.

“To me, there is no difference,” she said. “To me, the action is the same. You intentionally broke the code of safety to driving.”

Studies estimate about 10 percent of all fatal crashes in the nation involve some form of distraction, ranging from talking on the phone to eating or manipulating an on-board entertainment system. For the Houston region, that has meant about 66 to 70 fatalities annually since 2013, based on an analysis last year by the Houston Chronicle, which found the Houston region is the most dangerous major metro area in the nation for roadway fatalities.

The Houston area also was the most distracted major city in a study released Wednesday by Zendrive, which monitors phone use by drivers, specifically in commercial fleets and delivery companies. Researchers found drivers in the Houston region used their phones 9.4 percent of the time they were driving. Only Dallas, which placed second on the list of 19 metro areas, also saw drivers distracted more than 9 percent of the time.

The clear difference in terms of phone use behind the wheel was what sort of laws existed in the area. In places such as Houston, Dallas, Detroit and Denver where laws are less strict, people spent more time using their devices. In Seattle, Portland, New York and Atlanta — where there are bans on holding a phone while driving — use was around 7 percent to 7.3 percent of the time behind the wheel.

The findings, however, show mixed results. Tougher laws lead to less use, but not widespread abandonment of phones while driving. Still, many argue Texas needs tougher laws. The state banned texting while driving in 2017, but did so with numerous exceptions allowing uses of a handheld phone, including talking on it while driving.

“We fought for eight years for the texting law, which is already outdated,” said Jennifer Smith, executive director of Stop Distractions, an advocacy group.

She said while Texas has shown some improvement, she credits the 45 communities that ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving with contributing most to the reduction.

Landsberg said voters are the key. Studies show most people support tougher laws about phone use and other types of distracted driving, even if many of those same supporters continue their bad habits. That support, he said, must be communicated to lawmakers, who then should be held accountable for better laws.

“The legislators have as much responsibility as anybody else and they should be held accountable to pass sensible laws that most people agree on,” Landsberg said.

Laws, however, cannot be the only efforts, police and safety experts agreed.

“We need the carrot and the stick,” Smith said.

Both already are available. Houston Methodist has partnered with area businesses on Safe 2 Save, a smartphone app that allows people to accumulate points for every minute they do not use their phone while driving. The points can be traded for discounts and free items from restaurants and shops.

“We are trying to change behavior, and we believe the way to do it is positive influence,” said Courtney Scioli, director of brand with Safe 2 Save.

Also critical, officials said, is getting that message across in a way that gets drivers to consider the risks. Some advocated for increased training as part of driver education programs, especially aimed at teen drivers.

“The most important group I can talk to is teenage kids,” said Toron Woodbridge, who lost two sisters to a distracted driving crash.

©2019 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.