Driven to distraction

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently released its analysis of a single-vehicle passenger bus crash near Washington, DC, in 2004. The findings provide yet another link between crashes and driver cell phone use.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently released its analysis of a single-vehicle passenger bus crash near Washington, DC, in 2004. The findings provide yet another link between crashes and driver cell phone use.

The chartered bus was taking 27 high school students and their chaperone to Washington, DC, from a nearby airport. It was traveling southbound in the right lane when it collided with an underpass, which had inadequate right lane clearance because of it's curved roof design. One student sustained serious injuries ten sustained minor injuries.

The report indicated that the bus driver failed to move from the right lane to the center lane prior to reaching the bridge, despite numerous warning signs placed in advance of the underpass. The driver never slowed from his 46 mph cruising speed and did not stop until 470 ft. after hitting the bridge.

In addition, witnesses and the bus driver himself reported that the bus driver was talking on a hands-free cellular telephone at the time of the accident. The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the accident was the driver's failure to notice and respond to low-clearance warning signs or even the bridge itself because he was distracted while talking on the phone.

These findings contribute to the growing body of research regarding wireless communication devices and crash involvement.

Earlier this year, for example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released its “Naturalistic Driving Study,” which tracked 241 drivers over a 13-month period. Using video imaging and onboard computers, the study measured the relationship between driving distractions (e.g., drowsiness, eating and talking on cell phones) and crashes and near-miss incidents.

The study revealed, for example, that drivers distracted by the task of reaching for a moving object, such as a spilled drink, increased their likelihood of being in a crash by a factor of 8.8. In other words, they were nearly nine times more likely to get into a crash than drivers who were not distracted. The act of dialing the phone increased crash likelihood by a factor of 2.7, while engaging in conversation on the phone increased crash likelihood by a factor of 1.3.

A report released by the University of Utah last year found that “…people are as impaired when they drive and talk on a cell phone as they are when they drive intoxicated at the legal blood-alcohol limit of 0.08.”

Findings like these led the NTSB to recommend that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration publish regulations prohibiting cell phone use for all CDL drivers who transport passengers (e.g., charter buses and school buses). In addition, the Board recommended that charter bus companies establish policies prohibiting their drivers from talking on cell phones while driving.

Are these proposals a precursor of future “anti cell phone” legislation? I think they could be. Many states are now collecting crash report data that takes cell phone use into account. Such data will no doubt be used to more accurately measure the link between cell phone use and vehicle crashes, and could eventually become the basis for future rulemaking discussions.

The New Year is a good time to take a fresh look at safety goals and policies. Review the research mentioned here, and while you're at it, consider your own position about using a cell phone while you're behind the wheel.


Jim York is the manager of Zurich Service Corp.'s Risk Engineering Transportation Team, based in Schaumburg, IL.

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