Distracted driving is such a focus of the U.S. Department of Transportation and state legislatures that some say it’s shifting resources and public attention from other important safety issues, including seat belt usage, speed enforcement and safer vehicles.
At least eight state legislatures will consider laws this session to ban texting and driving, even though federal and insurance industry-funded research show no link between texting and more crashes.
Eight states will also take up bans on using handheld cellphones while driving, although they have not been linked to any more crashes than hands-free phones.
Prodded by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, 29 states passed no-texting laws since 2008. It took 25 years for as many states to adopt seat belt laws that allow police to stop people for not wearing a safety belt. If every state had these laws, almost 300 lives would have been saved in 2009, says the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Meanwhile, 15 states stop requiring booster seats for children at or before age 6, despite research by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that shows booster seat usage instead of seat belts cuts serious injury risk by 45% for kids up to 9.
“I am strongly in favor of efforts to better understand the problem, but in the meantime we shouldn’t be distracted by distraction,” says Jeffrey Runge, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is part of the Transportation Department. Resources should focus on the biggest causes of injuries, he says. But LaHood said he will not be “dissuaded by the naysayers, because we know if we can get people to put down their phones and focus on the road, we will save lives.” People also once complained about seat belt, drunken driving and child seat campaigns, “And what if we had listened to them?” he asked in a statement.
NHTSA says 5,500 people died in 2009 due to distractions. Of those deaths, 18% were linked to cellphones. Speeding and drunken driving are each linked to twice as many deaths.
In its proposed 2011 budget pending before Congress, NHTSA wants to shift $50 million from incentives for states to pass the tougher seat belt laws to anti-texting law incentives. The Transportation Department says there is plenty of money for any state that upgrades its seat belt law and that distracted driving doesn’t have dedicated funding.