Trucks at Work
Action on distraction

Action on distraction

“The bottom line is; distracted driving is dangerous driving. If it were up to me, I would ban drivers from texting, but unfortunately, laws aren’t always enough.” –U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood

Suddenly, the issue of “distracted driving,” specifically as it applies to the use of cell phone to either talk or text while operating a motor vehicle, is everything. No less than Ray LaHood, head of the Department of Transportation, held a press conference yesterday to note that a national summit meeting is going to be held in September to figure out ways to combat distracted driving.

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“We’ve learned from past safety awareness campaigns that it takes a coordinated strategy combining education and enforcement to get results,” he said at the press event. “That’s why this meeting with experienced officials, experts and law enforcement will be such a crucial first step in our efforts to put an end to distracted driving.”

He noted that a number of deadly accidents involving text messaging behind the controls of not just cars and commercial trucks, but trains as well, highlight the dangers of text-messaging and other distractions.

In 2008, LaHood noted, a commuter train crash in California involving an operator who was texting on a cell phone killed 25 people and injured 135 others. In another incident, a Florida truck driver admitted to texting moments before a collision with a school bus that killed a student. In yet another only a few weeks ago, a 17-year-old high school student from Peoria, Illinois, was killed when she drove off the road while texting with friends.

“The bottom line is; distracted driving is dangerous driving,” LaHood stressed. “Following next month’s summit, I plan to announce a list of concrete steps we will take to make drivers think twice about taking their eyes off the road for any reason.”

There’s a legislative effort in Congress on this issue as well – one supported by trucking’s biggest lobbying group, the American Trucking Associations.

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Introduced on July 29 by U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), the Avoiding Life-Endangering and Reckless Texting (ALERT) by Drivers Act of 2009 would create federal funding penalties for states that fail to make texting while driving illegal.

Text messaging while driving is already illegal in Alaska, California, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey, Tennessee, Utah and the District of Columbia. In these states, police can stop a driver for texting while driving and ticket the driver. Text messaging while driving is also illegal in Maryland, Virginia, Washington and Louisiana but police cannot ticket a driver in these states for the offense unless the driver has been stopped for another traffic offense. Six additional states have legislation in place that will prohibit text messaging while driving by January of 2010.

Congress’ ALERT bill, however, would require all states to within two years of the bill’s passage ban writing, sending or reading text messages using a hand-held mobile telephone or other portable electronic communication device. States that do not comply with the legislation risk losing 25% of their annual federal highway funding, noted ATA – and the group said this fits in with the industry’s safety agenda.

“We recommend that drivers and motor carriers consider policies that would minimize or eliminate driver distraction caused by using electronic devices while operating any type of motor vehicle,” the association noted in a press release. “Electronic communication devices hinder driver performance by taking the driver’s eyes off the road. Drivers may also become so absorbed in their text message that their ability to concentrate on driving is impaired.”

The ATA stressed, however, that it’s important that any legislation does not inadvertently require states to outlaw the use of truck cab fleet management systems that provide limited but necessary cargo-related information to truck drivers – an important distinction that hopefully won’t get lost in the legislative shuffle on Capitol Hill.

Yet the success of these various legislative and regulatory efforts hinges on changing human behavior, and that is no easy task. For at the heart of this issue of “distracted driving” is a cultural phenomenon that is widely encouraged – even prized – called “multi-tasking.” Jerry Osteryoung, professor of finance at with the college of business at Florida State University, notes that multi-tasking is now being routinely listed as a job requirement – and that “Generation Y,” roughly those born after 1980, prides itself on its ability to multi-task.

“How many times have you driven down the highway talking on the phone or even worse, texting? This has always bothered me,” he wrote in one of his columns recently. “I tend to want to want to ‘multi-task’ all the time too, and yes, I have sent text messages while driving. I am not particularly proud of this, but in those moments, it seemed that it saved me time and made me more efficient. [Yet] lately I have noticed that the more I multi-task, the less fulfilled and more stressed I feel.”

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An empirical research study on the effects on multi-tasking done by Rubinstein, Evans and Meyer in 2001 compared how long it took to solve various types of problems (e.g., math problems) when participants switched from one task to another, Osteryoung noted. They then compared this to the time that elapsed when participants stayed on one task until completion.

The study found that multi-tasking was just not as efficient as doing one job until completion, said Osteryoung; the reason being that each time they moved from task to task, they had to catch up to where they left off. “Interruptions and multi-tasking have a similar effect in that before you can resume the task, your mind has to return to where you left off, and this takes time,” he explained.

Additionally, the study found that people who multi-task could lose 40% of their time. Although less time was lost when people multi-tasked between familiar things like driving and talking on the phone, the time escalated when they had to multi-task between complex problems.

As a result, Osteryoung said he tried an experiment; for one day, he did not allow himself to multi-task no matter how much he wanted to take a call or check emails while driving. Later in the day, he pulled over and responded to my phone calls and then emails all at once.

“At the beginning of the day, I felt very frustrated as I thought I was falling behind,” he related. “However, as the day went on, I started to feel less stress, and a sense of peace just seemed to envelope me. On top of this, I was able to accomplish all I needed, and it even seemed as if I was able to get more done than I would have while multi-tasking.”

Osteryoung said his little experiment confirmed to him that multi-tasking comes with a high cost both in terms of stress and productivity. “While clearly some degree of multi-tasking is always going to be necessary, the more you reduce it, the better and more productive your life will become,” he noted. “From now on, I am going to minimize how much multi-tasking that I do. I know now that, for me, it is not efficient and it makes me feel like ‘crap.’”

It’ll be interesting to see if engendering a more negative view of “multi-tasking” as a concept can help reduce the problem of distracted driving. We’ll how this view plays out as debate about this issue increases.