Texting, using hand-held and hands-free cell phones, talking to passengers and even programming your GPS while driving can all be life-threatening distractions on the road, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and others said at a national Distracted Driving Summit Thursday.
LaHood pledged an administration-wide effort to combat the growing problem, announcing that President Obama had just signed an executive order directing federal employees not to text while driving government vehicles or private vehicles on government business.
"Every time you take your eyes off the road or talk on the phone while you're driving -- even just for a few seconds -- you put your life in danger," said LaHood, citing new research from the National Transportation Safety Board showing nearly 6,000 people died in crashes last year involving distracted or inattentive drivers. The data showed more than 500,000 were injured, and that on any given day last year 800,000 vehicles had someone using a hand-held cell phone at the wheel.
The secretary also outlined new Department of Transportation directives calling for permanent restrictions on the use of cell phones and electronic devices by rail, truck, interstate and school bus drivers.
Other speakers at the two-day conference in Washington, D.C., included Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who called upon the administration and auto and phone industry associations to endorse his ALERT driving bill -- Avoiding Life Endangering and Reckless Texting -- which he introduced in July along with colleagues.
Schumer said Ford Motors and Verizon are backing the bill, which asks for states to ban texting while driving or risk losing a quarter of their annual federal highway funding. He said texting is more dangerous than drunk driving.
Safety experts detailed research showing that the proportion of distracted drivers and related fatalities was on the increase and that hands-free devices were not necessarily safer. Teenagers and those under 30 were the worst offenders, one survey said.
Virginia Tech's Dr. Tom Dingus said his now well-known survey had found that "holistic issues" were at play and driver education was the best preventive measure.
Some of the most compelling testimonies came from the families of victims of distracted driving incidents. Most of the families attending have established educational foundations in the memory of their loved ones, mostly aimed at educating drivers to be more vigilant.
The father and sister of 19-year-old Shreya Dixit spoke of how Shreya, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, had accepted a ride home and was killed when the driver momentarily reached for an item in the car. Her father Vijay Dixit has established a foundation in her name that provides high school education modules for safer driving practices.
"The people in the cars next to us. It's someone's sister, someone's mother," her sister Nayha said. "Is checking that text message more important than someone's life?"
She echoed the points made by all the experts at the summit -- though texting and cell phone use is highlighted in the media, driving while distracted with other tasks like putting on make-up, listening to music and chatting with friends can all have fatal consequences.
The summit participants noted that multi-tasking while driving has become a chronic societal problem.
"Texting while driving has become the norm" said Kristin Backstrom of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. For some, "Driving itself is the distraction."