*Click here to watch Ray LaHood’s testimony on eSN.TV*
Driving while distracted is a growing peril in a nation reluctant to put down its cell phones and handheld devices even behind the wheel, the Obama administration declared on Sept. 30 — and young people (drivers age 20 or younger) are said to be the biggest culprits.
Opening a two-day meeting to find ways to reduce drivers’ use of mobile devices, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported that nearly 6,000 people were killed and a half-million were injured last year in vehicle crashes connected to driver distraction. That includes drivers talking on cell phones and texting.
“To put it plainly, distracted driving is a menace to society,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. “Distracted driving is an epidemic, and it seems to be getting worse every year.”
The meeting gathered experts to examine the potentially deadly mix of driving with cell phones, mobile devices, and other distractions that divert attention from the road. LaHood said he would offer recommendations on Oct. 1 that could lead to new restrictions on the use of the devices behind the wheel.
While the meeting focused on drivers using cell phones and mobile devices, participants noted that distractions also could include reaching into the back seat, applying makeup, or eating.
“I have nightmares about the last moments of my mother’s life,” said Greg Zaffke of Chicago, whose mother, Anita, was killed in May when a vehicle rear-ended her motorcycle at 50 mph. The driver had been painting her fingernails at the time of the crash.
Congress is watching the issue closely. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and other Democrats are pushing legislation that would require states to ban texting or eMailing while operating a moving vehicle or lose 25 percent of their annual federal highway funding.
“We need every state to put safety first,” Schumer told participants.
LaHood said the government would draw lessons from past efforts to reduce drunken driving and encourage motorists to wear seat belts, urging a “combination of strong laws, tough enforcement, and ongoing public education.”
That includes spreading the message in driver’s education programs as well.
The government reported that 5,870 people were killed and 515,000 were injured last year in crashes where at least one form of driver distraction was reported. Driver distraction was involved in 16 percent of all fatal crashes in 2008 and was most prevalent among young drivers in particular.
The greatest proportion of distracted drivers reportedly were those age 20 and under. Sixteen percent of all under-20 drivers involved in fatal crashes were reported to have been distracted while driving, the government said.