United States Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood was the keynote speaker at the Alabama Distracted Driving Summit, sponsored by the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s University Transportation Center (part of the Injury Control Research Center) and the University Transportation Center of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. The summit, the first such event in Alabama, brought together leaders in transportation, public policy, law enforcement and science to discuss how to reduce motor-vehicle crashes resulting from distracted driving through legislation, enforcement, public awareness and education. One of our lawyers, Mike Andrews, is a member of the UAB-UTC Advisory Board and attended the meeting.
Without any doubt, distracted driving is an epidemic in this country. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that 800,000 vehicles were driven by someone using a cell phone in 2008, that 6,000 people died in distracted-driving-related vehicle crashes, and that 500,000 were injured. Last September, Dr. Despina Stavrinos, a researcher at UAB, and Russ Fine, Ph.D., director of the UAB University Transportation Center, organized the summit and did a great job. Alabama was the first state to respond to the Secretary’s challenge to begin a national debate on the practice of driving while distracted by the ubiquitous technology of today.
Distracted driving is often equated with drunk driving. It will take a consistent combination of education, effective enforcement, a committed judiciary and collective efforts by local, state, and national advocates to put a dent in the problem. The danger is most acute among young drivers who have grown up surrounded by hand-held electronic technology. The Pew Research Center says that 70% of 16 and 17 year olds admit they’ve been in a car while the driver was texting.
Most teens have been texting or using hand-held electronics since they were nine or ten years old. They are now getting behind the wheel of a car. Secretary LaHood outlined steps that he hopes will become part of the nation’s collective driving routine: Parents need to set clear ground rules for teenage drivers, and then enforce them. Teens need to exert peer pressure and tell friends they won’t ride with them if they text. Employers need to let employees travel to destinations without interruption. And all of us need to use some common sense every time we get behind the wheel of a vehicle.
A growing number of states have legislation pending banning distracted driving in one form or another. The insurance and telecommunications industries are engaged in a search for solutions. The Alabama summit identified a number of promising avenues to minimize the risks of distracted driving, some of which are already in the planning stages in Alabama. The state has assigned responsibility for addressing the issue of distracted driving to the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs and the State Safety Coordinating Committee which has developed an Alabama Strategic Highway Safety Plan. Dr. Fine had this to say:
Because of the summit, many more people in the private sector and in government have become better informed about the distracted driving problem. Our goal now is to continue to increase awareness among policy and decision makers as well as the general public. We intend to keep the anti-distracted driving campaign going throughout the entire regular 2010 session of the Alabama Legislature, or until an anti-distracted driving bill is signed into law by the Governor, whichever occurs first.
The UAB-UTC will provide each member of the Alabama Legislature with individual DVD copies of the presentations made at the summit. They also intend to set up a Distracted Driving Theater near the capitol in Montgomery, where legislators, their staffs, elected, appointed and regular civil service employees, as well as members of the general public, can visit and view DVD copies of all presentations and panel discussions made during the summit. Other anti-distracted driving information will be available and distributed through the theater.
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