A panel of top political commentators joins Diane to talk about some of the head spinning events of this last year and to get their perspectives on the challenges ahead.
The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that texting, talking or emailing on a cellphone should be banned by all states, except in emergencies. The recommendation includes hands-free devices as well. The only exception is G.P.S. navigation systems. The board made the recommendation after an investigation into a deadly road accident in Missouri involving a 19-year old driver who sent and received 11 text messages in 11 minutes just before the fatal crash. Join us to discuss the implications of this latest effort to curb dangerous driving.
- Russ Rader Vice president of communications, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
- David Teater Senior director, Transportation Initiatives, the National Safety Council.
- Deborah Hersman Chairman, National Transport Safety Board.
- Steven Yantis Chair of psychological and brain Sciences, Johns Hopkins University
- Horace Cooper Adjunct fellow for the National Center for Public Policy Research
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In a recent poll, 90 percent of people said talking on the phone while driving was dangerous. But 80 percent of drivers admit to having done it. Join us to talk about whether the use of cellphones when driving should be banned. Deborah Hersman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Steven Yantis of Johns Hopkins University, Horace Cooper of the National Center for Public Policy Research.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining us on the line from Grand Rapids, Mich. is David Teater of the National Safety Council. I'm sure many of you have your own ideas as to whether cellphone use should be banned. I'll look forward to hearing your calls, your comments, 800-433-8850. Send your emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.
MR. HORACE COOPERGood morning.
MR. STEVEN YANTISGood morning.
REHMGood to have you with us.
MR. DAVID TEATERGood morning.
REHMDeborah Hersman, why has the National Transportation Safety Board made this recommendation now?
MS. DEBORAH HERSMANWell, you know, Diane, it's really a culmination of 10 years of accident investigations. One of our first investigations involving distraction was here in Washington, D.C., and it involved a young driver who was on the Beltway in 2002. She was talking on her cellphone at the time. She ended up crossing I-95, and the median flipped her car and landed on a minivan, killing five. Since then, we've investigated distracted accidents in all modes of transportation: aviation, rail, marine, and more highway accidents involving buses, involving trucks and involving passenger cars.
MS. DEBORAH HERSMANAnd last year, over 3,000 people were killed in distracted driving accidents. We recognized this and made the recommendation this week after an investigation of an accident in Missouri in which a driver was texting, and that started a chain-reaction crash that killed two and injured 38.
REHMNow, I gather that this initiative would apply to hands-free driving cellphoning as well?
HERSMANIt does because what we have found in our accident investigations, some of them involving hands-free drivers talking on cellphones, is that it's not just the visual or the manual distraction. It's the oral, it's the cognitive distraction that really is requiring people to divide their attention and take their focus away from the driving task.
REHMDeborah Hersman, she is chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. David Teater, turning to you. Tell us what the statistics show about cellphone usage when driving and just how dangerous it is.
TEATERWell, you know, one of the things, Diane, that's interesting in this field is it's very, very difficult to understand what causes a crash, what causes an accident. And Deborah's board is -- you know, investigates those and bases their recommendations on those investigations. But, you know, crashes, by definition, are chaotic. People don't always tell the truth. People don't remember. They get hurt. They're worried about, you know, prosecution of some sort.
TEATERSo the statistics are hard to come by, but there's a tremendous amount of research that's been done on cellphone-distracted driving, some, like, going back 15 or 20 years. I mean, I was surprised when I got into this 10 years ago how much research existed. And it all seems to point in the same direction, and that is that this activity is extremely dangerous. That is, however, only half of the equation. And this is, I think, one of the things that's misunderstood about this.
TEATERNot only do we need to understand how distracting certain activities are, but we have to understand how often we're exposed to the risk, how prevalent they are. And that's where talking on cellphone is in a class by itself. I mean, if this was 20 years ago where there were just a few business people on real expensive cellphones making real short phone calls, we wouldn't be here talking about this today. We're here today because it becomes so prevalent, and it causes crashes as a result of that.
REHMTell me about your own experience with this issue.
TEATERWell, you know, I got involved in this, unfortunately, in a very difficult way. I was a business person. I was on the road a lot. I used my cellphone a lot. And then in 2004, I got a call. And there had been a terrible crash, and it wasn't too far from my office. When I got there, my wife had been in a crash with my youngest son, Joe, who was 12 years old at the time -- was in the car.
TEATERA young lady who was talking on a cellphone -- we found out later -- looking straight out the window -- so she was cognitively distracted -- ran a red light in broad daylight, hit our vehicle, and, unfortunately, our son died about six, eight hours later.
REHMOh, David, I'm so sorry.
TEATERSo -- yep, and -- but, you know, I looked at the crash details about how somebody could be talking on a phone, ran a red light --she passed other cars that were stopped for that red light in the other southbound lane. Our vehicle wasn't the first to come through the intersection. There were three or four in front of her. The onboard crash recorder said she never touched her brakes. And I looked at that, and I said, how could somebody make such a egregious mistake? Yeah, I had a little bit of a research background.
TEATERI looked at the research out there. I was shocked at what existed already way back in 2004 on this subject, and there's been more research since. And it all points in the same direction.
REHMDavid Teater of the National Safety Council. He joins us from WGVU. And turning now to you, Steven Yantis, is talking on the telephone different from talking to the passenger who's seated next to you?
YANTISYes. Cognitive psychologists have been interested in this, the consequences of dividing attention between multiple tasks for a long time. And in the situation in comparing talking in a cellphone with talking to a passenger, one really fundamental difference is that the passenger is in the same situation as the driver. They're aware that the driver is -- has to monitor traffic. They can even notice when traffic conditions begin to change.
YANTISSomeone who's talking to you on a cellphone may not even know you're driving, and so they may interject some information in the conversation that requires the driver to really think. It may be emotional information, but it's not modulated according to the task that the driver has in front of them. So the difference between talking to someone in the car and talking on a cellphone can be dramatic.
REHMWhy did Johns Hopkins get involved in this study?
YANTISWell, cognitive psychologists have been interested in attention and multitasking for many years. Cellphone and driving is a great example of multitasking because you have split-second decisions to make in the driving situation while having to retrieve information and respond to someone you're conversing with on a cellphone. And so what psychologists have tried to do is come up with carefully controlled experiments to measure the delays involved in switching between two different tasks.
YANTISAnd the experiments can be done with very simple task-like listening to high and low tones or listening -- looking at different kinds of visual information on a computer screen. Or they can be very high-fidelity driving simulators, where people are actually involved in a phone conversation and driving under real-world circumstances. And with carefully controlled experiments, one can measure the delays in responding to events that occur on the road when you're engaged in a cellphone conversation.
YANTISAnd, of course, you're not continuously under high load when you're in a conversation. Things kind of wax and wane, but what's important to keep in mind is that the probability of being able to respond rapidly to an unexpected event is going to diminish if your mind and your concentration is involved in a conversation.
REHMSteven Yantis, he's chair of psychological and brain sciences at the Johns Hopkins University. Turning to you, Horace Cooper. I gather you think this recommendation is way too heavy-handed.
COOPERIt is extremely heavy-handed. It doesn't respond to the seriousness of the need that many Americans place on the ability to have access to their cellphones and the information that that provides, the opportunities for communication that that provides. This entire assault on the cellphone seems to be predicated, I guess, on the notion that that's optional, that's not something that's all that unusual. It's not something that's all that necessary.
COOPERStatistically, the growth in cellphone use and ownership has been a phenomenal one over the last 15 years. And now we're seeing there are more cellphone owners than landline owners. The idea that the cellphone is somehow an accessory that isn't all that essential in our day-to-day use isn't accurate. Now, why do I say that? If I have a blind relative that I carry around all the time, I am now risking myself when I drive with them based on the logic I just heard because they can't appreciate and participate in the traffic considerations. It's dangerous.
COOPERIf I have toddlers that sit in the backseat that are small, they can't see. They can't observe. And I engage in conversations with them. I also, apparently, am engaging in dangerous, risky behavior. And yet the National Transportation Safety Board, which has to understand there have been, for a millennium, blind people and there are also, for a millennium, young toddlers that people carry in their cars, are not issuing safety recommendations to tell us how dangerous it is to carry those people as our passengers.
REHMOf course, there is an exception to the recommendation by the NTSB that for emergencies, the cellphone would be permitted.
COOPERWell, first of all, I'll say two things about that. One is that's an exception that's being offered today. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood indicated that they were interested in studying technology that would actually bar the operation of the cellphone while the car was actually engaged. And sometimes when you're in a dangerous situation, the least good idea is to pull over, turn your key off so that you have time to use your cellphone. Now, is the Department of Transportation and the advocates of this idea going to apologize for the injuries and harm that occur as a result of that?
REHMHorace Cooper, he's an adjunct fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, we'll talk with the vice president at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
REHMAnd as we talk about new recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board that texting, talking or emailing on a cellphone while driving should be banned by all states, except in emergencies, joining us now on the phone is Russ Rader. He is vice president of communications at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Good morning to you, Russ. Good to have you with us.
MR. RUSS RADERThank you, Diane. Thanks for having me.
REHMI know your institute funded two studies into cellphone use and texting while driving. Tell us what you've found.
RADERWell, the institute is a nonprofit research group. We're funded by automobile insurance companies with the mission of finding ways to reduce crashes. You know, let me just first say that when the National Transportation Safety Board makes a recommendation, you know, they are basing that on a careful, clear-eyed review of the science and the facts.
RADERAnd in this current -- in this latest recommendation that Chairwoman Hersman announced this week, you know, it's -- one of the things that it's done is shine the light on the fact that the research -- the body of evidence shows that hands-free phoning doesn't appear to be any safer than handheld phone use. But the thing that researchers are wrestling with is, what is the best way to deal with all this and the overall problem of distracted driving?
RADERAnd so far, unfortunately, we have not seen that there has been a reduction in the crash risk when states enact various kinds of cellphone restrictions compared to the states that don't have them. And we did two studies looking at that, first looking at states that had enacted handheld cellphone ban. And we saw no reduction in the crash risk in those states, compared with those states that didn't have that kind of restriction and similar thing with texting bans.
RADERAnd given the risk associated with phoning, and given the fact that we know phone use goes down when states enact these laws, we expected to see something in the data. And we're not seeing it. You know, when seatbelt laws started to be passed, we saw immediate effects when -- with incremental increases in belt use as seatbelts -- laws were passed to require them. And we saw immediate reductions in fatal -- fatalities and injuries and crashes. We're just not seeing those effects with these cellphone restrictions.
REHMAre you actually saying that you don't believe -- or that the studies you've done indicate that cellphones are not a serious distraction?
RADERAbsolutely not. All the research and common sense shows that cellphone use is distracting, especially texting behind the wheel. You don't need to study to know that texting is dangerous. There is no question that crashes are being caused by people on the phone. There's no question that it's a big distraction. The problem is, is that distracted driving is much bigger than just phones, and people do a lot of things behind the wheel that lead to crashes.
RADERAnd by focusing on phones, we may be leaving out a lot of the things that also lead to crashes. We may need to think about this in a broader way than just passing new laws.
REHMI wonder about enforcement and whether, you know, catching up with somebody who may have been texting or talking, whether that person is really going to admit to having done it. I wonder whether that lack of enforcement could really be the reason why there don't seem to be that many differences.
RADERThat could be part of it. And the Department of Transportation is looking at whether a really targeted enforcement combined with, you know, an educational media campaign could have an impact on that. Enforcement, you know, frankly, is difficult when you're talking about the possibility of banning hands-free phones, when you're talking about trying to spot someone who's texting, especially if they're trying to conceal it. So enforcement is a big problem. It's not like seatbelt laws, where it's easy to see when someone's not wearing a shoulder belt.
REHMSo if banning cellphone usage while driving isn't the answer, what do you think is?
RADERWell, going back to what I said before, in terms of looking at this in a broader way, we know that there -- you know, technology got us into this fix, and technology may be part of the answer in getting us out of it. The automakers are working very hard to install systems in vehicles, crash avoidance systems, that we've never had before that could address a whole wide range of distracted driving situations, not just when people are on the phone.
RADERThese are the systems that help bring the driver's attention back to the road by sensing when there's a hazard ahead, warning the driver that they need to take action and bringing their attention back when their full attention is not being paid to the road, whether it's trying to pick up the sandwich, scold the kids in the backseat or the fact that they're on the phone. Volvo even has a system that automatically brakes the vehicle in low-speed situations if it senses that a crash is imminent and the driver isn't responding.
REHMHowever, doesn't that put a great deal of responsibility on "something or someone else" to take responsibility for driving? When doesn't it ultimately come down to the individual?
RADERIt does. But it's certainly very difficult to change driver behavior, and we know that in all kinds of highway safety situations and problems that we've tried to address, it's very difficult to change drivers. And drivers need to take responsibility. But distracted driving isn't new. People have always driven distracted. We just keep inventing new ways to distract ourselves. And technology holds the promise of addressing that in a broader way than perhaps we can do with just laws alone.
REHMRuss Rader. He is vice president of communications for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Deborah Hersman, what do you make of the studies that the institute has done showing that there isn't really a difference when one is using cellphones or not?
HERSMANAnd, specifically here, we're talking about the bans and whether or not they're effective. And I think that what's really important here is, as you mentioned, Diane, is the enforcement. And when we look back at successful highway safety campaigns, there really are three legs to the stool. It's about having effective laws, about having good education and having strong enforcement, and you have see those to actually change people's behavior.
HERSMANAnd if we just look back in our generation, we've certainly seen these changes when it comes to the acceptance for drunk driving, people's use of seatbelts and also how we restrain our children in the car. And so, since I've been a child, these things have all changed very much because of those three things: laws, education and enforcement.
REHMSteven Yantis, how do you compare drunk driving with cellphone usage?
YANTISThere have been some studies at the University of Utah that directly compared the impairments accompanying drunk driving with cellphone usage, and they are quite comparable. I don't remember what the numbers are, but, in effect, you are reducing people's ability to respond effectively to visual information, even when their eyes are open and it's perfectly clear day, because their mind is somewhere else. There are delays in braking. You could miss unexpected events that are occurring in front you. And so the situations are, in some ways, comparable.
REHMHorace Cooper, how do you see that relationship between drunk-driving distraction and cellphone-usage distraction?
COOPERYou know, I think that's part of the reason that there's such an outcry in the opposition. If you ask the American people, they say if you're engaging in drunk driving and you injure someone, or you're just caught engaging in it, throw the book at you. They don't think that that ought to be the response for using your cellphone. It's precisely because they understand the difference between the two.
COOPERIf I am impaired because I am intoxicated, that doesn't stop in a minute. That doesn't stop in even 30 seconds. I have the ability, even if distracted, to stop paying attention to anything else and instantly refocus my attention. The fact that I have that ability makes it obvious to everybody that it's not the same as intoxicated driving.
REHMDavid Teater, how do you respond to that?
TEATERWell, I think that's just outright inaccurate. California just did a survey of their citizens. And they're more afraid today of cellphone-distracted drivers than they are drunk drivers. The vast majority of the American public now favors bans on all use of cellphones while driving. Now, at the same time, I'll admit that most of them will tell you they're still doing it, but they favor it. This is a threat that's been increasing dramatically over the last 10 years. It didn't really exist to any great degree over the last 10 years. And I just want to just comment real quickly on the Insurance Institute's two studies.
TEATERYou know, the Insurance Institute, I have a lot of friends there. They've done a lot of great work. I'm not sure this was their best work. They did one study that looked at states that had switched to hands-free. By their own admission, hands-free doesn't make it any safer, so you wouldn't expect to see any change in those states. The other work they did on texting was done in states that had relatively new texting laws. We have no idea what kind of enforcement was going on. And at the time, prevalence of texting was still really, really small.
TEATERSo, in other words, less than 1 percent of people were texting at any given time. And they compared that to total vehicle crash claims, not just those from distracted driving, but all vehicle crash claims, and they didn't see a big change. Well, you could have had a 30, 40 percent reduction in texting and the resulting crashes and still not seen a statistically significant claim, so -- claim difference. So, you know, we need to keep looking at this, obviously.
TEATERBut I think if you ask the people -- and we get calls every single day of people who are losing loved ones from distracted driving crashes caused by cellphones -- they'll tell you that we've got plenty of evidence out there that this is an extremely dangerous threat.
YANTISAnd as to how effectively people can switch their attention from one task to another, that's something that can be measured in the laboratory quite precisely. One has an intuition that you're aware of multiple sources of information simultaneously. But, in fact, if you measure it carefully, there appears to be a structural bottleneck in our ability to process different sources of information. So it does take time, measurable time, to switch from one task to another. And that time is -- could be critical in some situations.
REHMYou know, it's interesting, but people have asked me to ensure that folks who call in on cellphones have actually pulled over. So I'm going to make that request this morning as we open the phones. I'd like those of you who are in a car, who are driving, who have a cellphone to, please, pull over before you call us. 800-433-8850 and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go first to Battle Creek, Mich. Good morning, Steve. You're on the air.
STEVEGood morning. Thank you for taking the call.
STEVEI'd like to point out a couple of things. First of all, I'm a proponent of the cellphone blocking technology in automobiles. Canada has already mandated as a law that headlights come on with the ignition. And many American cars are following suit. We can tie it into the ignition. If you have the wherewithal to dial a cellphone, you have the wherewithal to turn off the ignition key. I don't think we need to be that instantly connected. I think nothing is more immediate than what's around you when you're driving.
REHMWhat do you think of that, Horace Cooper?
COOPERI think that sentiment is part of the alarmist mentality that says cellphone use is a guilty pleasure. It's not. It is something that many people find quite essential. There are reasons. Now, we are not going to have a long conversation today about transportation planning, but many of the transportation failures result in people spending extended periods of time in their car. They have to work to support their families, and they have to use that time because they don't have a lot of alternative time.
COOPERAnd when you put people in a situation like that and then accuse them of misusing it, accuse them of being unsafe about it, you're misunderstanding their motivations.
REHMWhat about that, Deborah Hersman, that there are a great many people who do work in their cars, either on the way to work, on the way home from work, that they are involved in telephone use that's not optional, but essential?
HERSMANWell, I think Horace raises a question that really is about all of us and our behavior. And I have to say that I experienced this myself. Before I became chairman, I put a -- once I became chairman, I put a ban on our agency: no texting, no talking, handheld or hands-free. And, in fact, I had to comply with that ban that I put on for our employees. And so I had to go cold turkey myself.
HERSMANI was one of those people who used my commuting time, which is very significant in the Washington, D.C. area, to actually start my work day. And then on my drive home, that was my check-in time with my mother. When I went cold turkey, I actually stopped communicating with my family because, as a mother of three children, I am very busy at home, and I'm very busy at work.
HERSMANI understand what Horace is saying. But you know what? We got along without cellphones for a long time. And once I stopped talking to my cellphone, the world didn't come to an end.
REHMSteven Yantis, what about radios in cars and the extent to which they can be as distracting as a telephone?
YANTISYeah, I think the way to think about it is that there are many different levels of distraction that can occur. So when you're listening passively to music, that's different than listening to "The Diane Rehm Show," which is different than listening to a conversation where you have to understand and then come up with a response. And that may be different than listening to a -- an emotional conversation where you might have to, you know, sort out different possible responses.
YANTISSo there are going to be different levels of distraction depending on the nature of the task that you're engaged in. So there's no question that some tasks are going to be a less distraction than others.
TEATERDiane, I want to comment on the productivity issue and, you know, using our offices, our cars as offices and so forth. The National Safety Council, who I work for, is a member organization. We have 20,000 corporate members around the country who are straight nonprofit. We have recommended to our member companies that they put in no cellphone driving policies for their employees, and we're amazed at how many companies have done that.
TEATERIn fact, there's a lot of large Fortune 500 companies that have had these policies in place back 10 years ago, looking at the research. It's amazing to us, and this was a surprise, quite frankly. But we asked -- we go back, and we asked these companies, what impact did it have on productivity? And we're getting less than 1 percent of the companies that think it has had a negative impact on productivity.
TEATERIn fact, we're getting almost 10 percent of companies that actually think productivity has increased. And I think what people find out is all those calls we think are urgent were really, in most cases, just passing time as we're driving down the roadway. And as Deborah said, we find a way to adapt. We find a way to make it work, and then we become much better and safer drivers because of that.
REHMDavid Teater of the National Safety Council, he joins us from WGVU in Grand Rapids, Mich. Short break and we'll be right back.
REHMWe're going to go back to the phones in just a moment. As I said earlier, I'd appreciate it if all of our callers this morning, if you are driving and using a cellphone, would you, please, pull over. Charles emails us. He says, "I totally agree there's a growing problem with bad drivers in the U.S., but legislating safety is not the answer. Training is the answer."
REHM"A cellphone," says Charles, "is no more a distraction than radio, navigation, entertainment consoles, animated passengers or billboards. Pilots, law enforcement and good drivers are all capable of doing several things while driving." Steve Yantis.
YANTISWell, actually, the studies that have focused on this issue have explicitly compared different forms of distraction to one another and measured the delays in responding to unexpected events while driving. So you can compare listening to different kinds of radio programs where the driver doesn't have to respond to -- responding to phone conversations, even looking at navigation information on a screen.
YANTISAnd the amount of interference that occurs is a function of the complexity of the information and, particularly, of the degree to which the driver-listener has to come up with a new response and provide that to the talker when it's not compatible with the driving that they're doing. So if someone asks them, what do you want to do after work, and you have to think about what you might want to do and where you are, then that is going to be maximally interfering with having to respond to visual events on the street in front of you.
REHMWhereas you, Horace Cooper, would say that we're all capable of that kind of multitasking, and therefore, we shouldn't be putting in legislative bans.
COOPERThe prohibitionist can glamorize their arguments, pretend that there's science and engineering behind it, but the prohibitionists really fail to appreciate this: every driver is trained. And if we want to encourage better training, I'm for it. But every driver is trained to respond to the driving situations with a degree of care or less care as the circumstances require.
REHMHow do you then account for David Teater's experience or the experience of the driver out in Missouri?
COOPEROK. Per mile driven, the number of deaths are down. And they are at a historic low. The idea that cellphones are larger and found in more households, in more individuals than they've ever been, and the number goes the other way. The prohibitionist told us that the speed limit laws were going to kill us if we couldn't keep the laws artificially at 55. You can take a big state -- like, Texas has an 80-mile-an-hour speed limit -- and we do not see it because drivers respond to the circumstances.
COOPERYes. You require more care if you're having a conversation while you're driving. You also require more care in a thunderstorm. You also require more care at 80 miles an hour. It's not an argument for the prohibitionist to have their way.
TEATERWell, you know, that would be true if everybody did take personal responsibility. I mean, I think Mr. Cooper's argument could be used for doing away with all traffic laws. You know, I think even some of the most conservative libertarians would agree that an appropriate role for government is national defense and public safety. And we're talking about a new activity. This isn't something we just decided to go after, you know, in the last couple of years.
TEATERThis is a new threat that's come upon us in the last five or 10 years. We've been driving cars for 100 years. We've been talking on telephones for 75. We've only combined those two activities in the last five or 10 years. And to just say, you know, that I don't believe that science doesn't support it -- 100 people die every single day on our nation's roadways. A hundred people die every single day.
TEATERNow, one other quick comment, I hear a lot about this issue of, you know, we've got a whole bunch more cellphones than we used to and crashes per mile driven. Our fatalities are going down. On the surface, that's a great argument, but the only way you can make that argument is to ignore all the other traffic safety things that have happened in the last 10 years. And we've had more traffic safety advances in vehicle engineering, in highway engineering and in enforcement practices in the last 10 years than probably the previous 30 or 40 years combined.
TEATERAnd I would say that if it wasn't for this new and amazingly strong threat of cellphone-related driving, we would have seen those statistics plummet even further. But, unfortunately, we're still losing 100 people every single day.
TEATERIt's the leading cause of death for everybody between the age of 5 and 35 years old, traffic crashes. This is a big deal.
REHMTo Oklahoma City. Good morning, Phil. You're on the air.
PHILGood morning, Diane.
PHILI'm really glad you guys are having this conversation today. I'm a musician and a courier, so I'm a professional driver. I've been kind of frightened about the suggested legislation about banning cellphones. It's kind of -- it tends to be an integral part of my workday due to receiving texts and calls about where to pick up what and what for. And I'm not going to argue that cellphone use and texting definitely is a dangerous act and a threat.
PHILBut as one of your speakers talked about earlier, the cognitive distractions aren't really just limited to cellphone usage. Like, you guys mentioned the radio or music or thoughts. You can't really turn off all the distractions. So having the ban, I think, would just be kind of a threat to civil liberties.
REHMWhat do you think about that, Deborah Hersman?
HERSMANWell, I don't disagree. Distractions have been around since the Model T. We have lots of distractions in our life, but this type of distraction is very different. And I think Horace did talk about how ubiquitous phones have become. Twenty years ago, one quarter of 1 percent of people had cellphones. Today, the subscription rate is over 100 percent in the United States because most of us have more than one device. We've got iPads. We've got phones. We've got BlackBerries.
HERSMANAnd we know that this is rampantly increasing, the use of these devices. And, in fact, the cellular telephone industry said in the two years from 2009 to 2011, the number of texts increased by 50 percent. And I think what we're seeing is that this is a different kind of threat, and it's something that can be controlled. It's something that we can look at. And I think when Horace talked about that people can stop this in an instant and it's not like drunk driving, 40 years ago, people thought it was fine to drink and then drive.
HERSMANI think it's about society changing its norms and its expectations. And I think holding your readers accountable, making sure they're not on the phone when they call is a good place to start that.
REHMAnd, you know, it wasn't until Mothers Against Drunk Driving got into the picture that drunk driving really got some brakes put on it. Go ahead, Horace.
COOPERI want to respond to this idea about the civil liberties. You know, your listeners have been told a couple of times during the show and other times even that it's not a good idea for them to drive while they're having these calls. You actually aren't issuing orders to have them fined. You're not having them arrested. You're not, in any way, interfering with their budget. You're offering them prudent advice that you offer, I think, from a position of concern. That is not what the alarmist and the prohibitionist want to do.
COOPERThe $250 that you pay as a fine in California for a first-time distracted driver offense, that's a civil liberties issue. But there's a second part of that. You are going to open -- create an open season for law enforcement people of all stripes to pull any and every person over and not have to justify that. That's a Fourth Amendment issue. That's a lot of issues involving race, income. A significant host of problems are going to be created by this kind of alarmist solution.
REHMDavid Teater, do police traffic incident forms have a box to check for cellphone use that you're aware of?
TEATERSome do. More and more are getting it all the time. But, Diane, the problem with that is, even if the box is there, it's very, very difficult for an officer to determine for sure if cellphone use was involved. And almost in every occasion, they've got something more serious they can cite the offender with. So, example, somebody runs a red light. There's no great explanation as to why they run the red light. They say, were you texting?
TEATERWere you on your cellphone? The answer is, no, Officer, I wasn't. Well, they can -- again, they've already got some kind of failure to yield that they can cite them with. So crash statistics are very, very difficult. There's no blood alcohol content test for cellphone use while driving at this point. We might have it someday, but there's nothing there today.
REHMGo ahead, Deborah.
HERSMANAnd I wanted just to add on to Mr. Teater's comments. As accident investigators, I will tell you, we have not gone into our investigations looking for distraction. But because we perform very comprehensive distractions, we find -- investigations, we find these distractions. It is now a matter of course for us to put preservation orders on people's records because we have found pilots, locomotive engineers, captains of ships, others talking on their phone, on their laptops, texting, and these have resulted in catastrophic accidents.
HERSMANThe local law enforcement officer who's investigating an accident at the road side doesn't have the ability or the time to do these investigations. And we found that those forms are very inconsistent. We made recommendations back in 2003 to put information about distractions on the accident reporting forms. Half of the accidents that were attributed to cellphone distraction in the last year came from the state of Oklahoma. And so what we're showing is that states don't -- are not consistent about how they check the box on whether or not distraction was involved.
REHMSo tell me what happens now. The NTSB has made this recommendation. What happens next?
HERSMANWhen we make recommendations, it's up to other people to implement them. And so, just as we've made recommendations about seatbelt use and about drunk driving, these recommendations for highway safety shouldn't just go to the states. But what we've encouraged them to do is three things: institute bans, conduct high visibility education and enforcement campaigns like we've seen with Click it or Ticket or Over the Limit, Under Arrest when it comes to drunk driving and really push these initiatives.
HERSMANWe've got to change culture. Just as smoking became unacceptable as a society, it's about pure acceptance to and what we allow people to do. Now, children make sure that their parents are buckled up when they get in the car with them, or their grandparents. We have to get to a point where society recognizes the danger here.
REHMAll right. To Norwich, Vt., good morning, Tom.
TOMHi. Thank you. I'm frankly a bit astonished at what I'm hearing. It's almost like some kind of hyperbolic libertarian horror story coming true. I want to, first of all, point out, obviously, texting is completely unacceptable. It's just common sense. You cannot possibly text and drive responsibly. However, that said, talking on a cellphone, I can imagine is statistically too much different from either the GPS, which I can't understand why that's accepted here, or just talking to a fellow passenger.
TOMAnd if you start banning things like that, it really gets quite antihuman. And the final point I'd like to make is that it was stated during this announcement yesterday that no phone call is worth a life. And that is a ridiculous standard trying to appeal to emotion. I mean, frankly, we can get rid of car accidents by simply banning cars. Is any car trip really worth a human life?
REHMAny comment, Deborah or Steven?
YANTISWell, I just want to say that, you know, the caller suggested that there really is no measurable difference between listening to a radio and talking on a cellphone. But, in fact, you do a carefully controlled experiment, and you do find a difference. It violates one's intuition. One has a sense of being aware of the entire environment and that there are no delays. But you have to do the science. You have to measure carefully responses, errors and so forth.
REHMBut he said talking to a passenger.
YANTISRight. And those studies have also been done where the person is sitting in the driving simulator with a passenger having a conversation versus talking to someone on cellphone versus listening to the radio. And you can quantify the differences in the impairments that are caused by those different situations.
REHMBut, Deborah, what about the GPS? Why wasn't that included?
HERSMANWell, I think that that's a great issue that we need to look at further. There's a lot of in-vehicle technology that is potentially distracting. And I can just tell you, from my own personal experience -- I have two vehicles. Both have in-vehicle mapping systems. One shuts down when the vehicle is in motion. When you take your foot off the brake, you can no longer make inputs. The other has a system that does not shut down, and you can continue to enter in information. There is a difference between the two of them.
HERSMANThere are guidelines the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers had, but not everybody complies with those guidelines. And so it's about looking at what's safe and determining how to do it safely and make sure that people are protected. Until we have a car that drives itself, you know, people are really putting themselves at risk and others on the roadway around them.
COOPERWell, the caller's point is well made and well considered. There are a number of risks. We don't have to have an equal risk to say it's true. Is a ride to town worth killing our toddler today? There is a risk of death. There is a risk of injury. Now, if you're going to tell us that the cellphone risk is a threshold level so significantly different than any of the other risk we place, then there's going to have to be a lot more effort, science, engineering to demonstrate that. But there is risk.
REHMIs that what you're saying, David Teater?
TEATERYeah, that's exactly what we're saying. And I would just -- I would recommend that Mr. Cooper spend a time on the research. It does exist. It amazed me when I looked at it and saw how much was there. It's not just the risk either. I mean, I want to keep stressing this. It's the number of people that are doing it. DOT estimates that 10 percent of all drivers at any given moment are distracted on a cellphone -- 10 percent, one out of 10.
TEATERWe can't even measure other things like -- you know, the example earlier, having a blind passenger and having a conversation, those risks don't exist. If they did, you know, then -- and they were causing crashes, we'd be here talking about it. So, yeah, it has risen to that threshold. That's why we're here and talking about this issue.
REHMDeborah, why do think politicians are reluctant to get into this debate?
HERSMANWell, unfortunately, I think it's a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do kind of issue because what we see when we do surveys and polls -- and, in fact, some have been conducted very recently here in the Washington area -- a large majority of people think that it's dangerous to be talking or texting on your phone. But, unfortunately, 50 percent of drivers here in the Washington area had recently talked on the phone, and over 20 percent had recently texted. And so I think it is hard. It's about giving it up, but I think we've got to change societal attitudes and norms about what is acceptable behavior.
REHMDo you think that it's going to take community action to get that done?
HERSMANI think it's going to take action from a lot of quarters. It's going to take corporations setting expectations for their employees, parents modeling good behavior for their kids. They don't want their teenagers to be driving while they're distracted. They shouldn't either.
REHMDeborah Hersman, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, Steven Yantis of Johns Hopkins University, Horace Cooper of the National Center for Public Policy Research and David Teater of the National Safety Council, thank you all so much. And thanks for listening. Be careful out there. I'm Diane Rehm.
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