Laws and Safety Efforts Can Prevent Distracted Driving

Last updated: 04-18-2021

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Laws and Safety Efforts Can Prevent Distracted Driving

When people read a text while driving, their eyes are off the road for an average of five seconds. At 55 miles per hour, that is like driving the length of a football field while blindfolded. Distracted driving continues to be an increasing problem. Crashes involving a distracted driver killed 3,142 people in 2019, up nearly 10 percent from 2018.

Every U.S. state currently has restrictions in place to address distracted driving, but the laws vary in scope and rigor. Some states–including Ohio, Michigan and Utah–are considering legislation in 2021 to enhance their distracted driving laws.

The first report from TRB’s Behavioral Traffic Safety Cooperative Research Program (BTSCRP) can help inform state and local efforts to address the issue comprehensively. A forum for coordinated and collaborative research, BTSCRP is a partnership between the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and TRB.

Using Electronic Devices While Driving: Legislation and Enforcement Implications offers an array of resources, best practices, and tools like model legislation and presentations for law enforcement. Policy makers and other stakeholders can reference the newly compiled information to identify ways to enhance enforcement and education efforts. Jurisdictions with strong traffic safety laws, supported by enforcement, public education, and outreach, tend to have lower overall traffic fatality rates.

The most effective laws and safety policy to curb the use of distracting devices while driving had the following common elements according to the report findings:

Researchers who worked on the report are presenting at a TRB webinar on March 15.

There are ways to prevent distractions for all drivers

Design plays an important role in traffic safety. The TRB National Cooperative Highway Research Program’s (NCHRP’s) Practice of Rumble Strips and Rumble Stripes details and explores variations in state highway agency practices in terms of design, criteria, and locations for installation, maintenance, perceived benefits, communication of benefits, and what is considered as important issues. The report shows that research has found a reduction in crashes with injuries or fatalities where rumble strips are applied.

Professional drivers in positions as bus and freight operators have specific safety training, but we’re all susceptible to distraction either from cell phones, personal conditions, road conditions, or anything else that demands attention.

Any task that is not directly related to operating a vehicle counts as distracted driving for commercial drivers. In 2012, TRB’s Commercial Truck and Bus Safety Synthesis Program published Distracted Driving Countermeasures for Commercial Vehicles, which examined protective safety-enhancing effects of particular devices.

The TRB Transit Cooperative Research Program’s (TCRP’s) Transit Bus Operator Distraction Policies is designed to help transit agencies develop policies and programs to address and prevent distracted driving as a potential cause of preventable incidents.

Furthermore, TCRP’s Successful Practices and Training Initiatives to Reduce Accidents and Incidents at Transit Agencies helps identify effective actions, including bus operator training and retraining programs and system approaches implemented to address safety hazards. These approaches include various technology applications, infrastructure modifications, and programs and initiatives such as driver incentive programs and close call/near miss reporting.

Who is most distracted and what is most distracting?

Ridehailing has created another category of professional drivers. Between Public and Private Mobility: Examining the Rise of Technology-Enabled Transportation Services offers guidance to state and local officials responsible for policy setting and regulation of for-hire transportation services in each of these areas. When it was published in 2016, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and TRB report encouraged more research into the question of whether ridehailing drivers’ heavy reliance on smartphones increases the risk of distracted driving.

A study published in Transportation Research Record(TRR) ranked secondary tasks for severity of crashes. Models used in the study pulled from the largest real-world naturalistic driving dataset, the second Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP2) Naturalistic Driving Study. The study found that both reading and reaching for objects while driving are the highest crash risk among all secondary tasks.

Drivers of all ages are distracted by their phones. A study of self-reported users also published in TRR showed that of drivers 65 years of age or older, nearly 60 percent use their phone in some way while driving – answering calls, making calls, and texting.

Further a culture of safety with TRB

TRB has deep roots in personal vehicle safety. Automobile fatalities exceeded 25,000 for the first time in 1926. As noted in The Transportation Research Board, 1920-2020: Everyone Interested Is Invited, authored by Sarah Jo Peterson, the Board made safety a priority and established a Committee on Causes and Prevention of Accidents the following year.

Nearly 95 years later, TRB is still advancing research in the field. BTSCRP is a new program provides practical solutions to save lives, prevent injuries, and reduce costs of road traffic crashes associated with unsafe behaviors.

Active BTSCRP projects are exploring a number of different safety issues, with several focusing on the behavior of drivers. In the next year, the program anticipates research published on both teen and older driver safety.

Another forthcoming report will look at messaging on variable or changeable message signs used on highways throughout the U.S.

An existing report from another TRB program, National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), A Strategic Approach to Transforming Traffic Safety Culture to Reduce Deaths and Injuries, provides guidance on developing a strategic approach to sustain improvements in traffic safety for all road users, including non-motorized users.

Become a friend of any of TRB’s standing technical committees focused on safety. From design to specific vehicle types, a list of related committees can be found at the end of this post. By becoming a friend, you’ll expand your network, and you can volunteer to help organize conferences, review papers, or participate in other committee activities.

You can also get involved with future Cooperative Research Program work. Look for ongoing information on calls for panel nominations, new projects, requests for proposals, and problem statement research ideas. Keep up with the latest news by subscribing to TRB’s weekly E-Newsletter.


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