This could be a pivotal day in the battle to curb the growing dangers of cell phone use and texting while behind the wheel.
Armed with alarming statistics from a new study, the Governors Highway Safety Association will consider endorsing a complete ban on cell phone use while driving — hands-free or not — at its annual meeting today.
The study by the American Journal of Public Health, released Thursday, found that distracted driving fatalities caused by cell phone use and texting soared 28 percent, from 4,572 in 2005 to 5,870 in 2008. The same report showed that texting has caused more than 16,000 deaths in car crashes from 2001 to 2007.
“It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to know that cell phone use and driving is dangerous and that lives have been lost due to this practice,” said Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman with the safety association.
California is one of eight states that ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving and among the 30 that prohibit texting.
The report analyzed data from the National Center for Statistics and Analysis, which recorded all fatalities on public roads in the United States from 1999 to 2008.
The governors’ safety group is made up of state highway safety officials from across the nation and is influential in formulating transportation safety policy. The National Safety Council already favors a total ban, estimating that cell phone use is responsible for 1.4 million crashes a year, more than one in four of all incidents.
And, beginning today, the state auto club is leading a campaign called “Heads Up Driving Week” to urge drivers to turn their cell phones off and start paying more attention to the road.
“The best thing to do is to put them in the trunk or turn them off and put them out of sight,” AAA spokesman Matt Skryja said, “so there isn’t a temptation to grab a call or to send a text while driving.”
Of greatest concern is a surge in texting. A Transportation Department study showed that motorists who send and receive text messages take their eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds out of every 6 seconds while texting. At 55 mph, they can travel the length of a football field without looking at the road.
The same report said a driver’s chances of being in a crash double if that person looks away from the road for just two seconds.
A new study by AAA shows that 52 percent of drivers say they feel less safe on the roads now than they did five years ago. And 88 percent rate drivers who text and e-mail as a very serious threat to their safety.
Most worrisome are the statistics about teens. The highest proportion of distracted drivers in fatal crashes were younger than 20, and one in four teen drivers say they have texted while driving.
In January, the government banned truck and bus drivers who travel interstate roads from using hand-held devices to send text messages.
Yet not everyone is sold on the effort to curb texting and cell phone use. The Insurance Institute For Highway Safety says laws banning hand-held phones have had little effect on crashes. Overall traffic deaths in 2009 were at their lowest level since 1950, and deaths attributed to distracted drivers fell 6 percent in 2009 from the previous year. A federal report said 5,474 people died in 4,898 crashes linked to distraction last year, down from 5,838 deaths in 5,307 crashes in 2008.
“Reducing crashes and saving lives is what highway safety is all about,” said the institute’s president, Adrian Lund, “and by this essential measure, the benefits of hand-held cell phone bans are nil.”
But Jennifer Smith, a board member of FocusDriven, which advocates against cell phone use while driving, told the HealthDay News that the more than 5,000 traffic deaths each year from cell phone use is “equivalent to a major airliner going down every week in this country. If that was happening, they would ground all flights until they figured out what the problem was and they solved it. But because everyone likes their cell phones, we have to debate this.”
Next year, California will spend around $3 million in federal safety grant money on distracted driving and tracking how many crashes are linked to drivers using cell phones.
And the impact of texting will be closely scrutinized, said Chris Cochran of the state Office of Traffic Safety.
“The primary traffic safety problem associated with cell phones is texting, since it disengages your hands, mind and eyes from the task of driving,” he said. “It’s not where your hands are; it’s where your head is.”