Washington • The deadly epidemic of distracted driving has defied dire parental warnings, heart-rending public service announcements, federally funded projects and targeted state and local law enforcement.
Frustrated by the lack of progress, Sen. Jay Rockefeller is convening a summit this week to try to identify new tech solutions, and end "finger pointing" by automakers, cell-phone carriers, communications technology firms, safety advocates and government regulators.
The five-term West Virginia Democrat is counting on the mere hint of deeper intervention by his wide ranging Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Thursday to persuade overlapping industries to speed deployment of technology that can divert incoming, non-emergency calls and disable non-emergency texting and calling from behind the wheel.
Of 33,561 traffic fatalities nationwide in 2012, 3,328 were caused by distracted driving that included talking or texting while underway, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Of 2.4 million people injured that year, 421,000 were in accidents involving distracted drivers.
Texas suffers a heartbreaking toll, as well. A total of 90,937 crashes statewide in 2012 involved distracted driving such as driver inattention or cell phone use, resulting in 471 deaths and 18,594 serious injuries, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. That amounted to a 13 percent increase in distracted driving fatalities in a single year.
In Houston, 4,662 distracted driving crashes in 2012 resulted in one death and 791 serious injuries. In San Antonio, 16,901 distracted driving crashes resulted in 55 fatalities and 2,353 serious injuries.
Texas, like most other states, leaves decisions about cell phone use up to drivers. The Lone Star State is one of 29 states that have no restrictions on the use of hand-held phones by drivers. Twelve other states ban the use of hand-held phones by drivers and nine states have some restrictions.
Forty-one states ban text messaging by drivers — but not Texas. Only school bus drivers and novice drivers are not allowed to text from behind the wheel in Texas, according to state law. But some Texas cities have local bans.
"Drivers hold the key to driving safely, which is why we place our emphasis on educating drivers about the dangers of distracted driving so that they can make better choices," says Carol Rawson, director of the traffic operations division.
Texas has carried out a public service campaign entitled "talk, text, crash" to help underscore the risks.
"We have to do everything possible to raise awareness of the dangers of distracted driving and get every driver to break this habit that has devastating consequences for public health," Rockefeller told Hearst Newspapers. "Far too many people have suffered because of someone looking away from the road to answer a call or respond to an email or text."
Congressional staffers are hoping the round-table discussions yield greater cooperation between automakers who profit from built in communications consoles, and cell phone service providers who profit from greater connectivity.
Officials are waiting to see the impact of a pioneering TXTL8R mobile app being offered for free this year to Iowa teenage drivers up to age 17. The technology disables text and phone capabilities when a driver is underway, except for emergency calls. It also sends a message to senders of incoming texts that the driver is unavailable and will respond later.
"Car and tech companies aren’t helping matters when they make products that give drivers the option to be constantly connected," says a committee staffer preparing the summit. "Automakers and technology companies should be doing everything possible to limit distractions and provide options for drivers to disconnect and to focus on the road."
Catherine McCulloch, executive director of the Intelligent Car Coalition, a tech-industry organization dedicated to dialogue with consumers and decision-makers about new smart-car features, said in a recent essay that "it may make sense for all transportation stakeholders ... to gather in a neutral venue and collaboratively engage on issues around the safety implications of new technologies."
The campaign is something of a swan song for Rockefeller, who retires from a 30-year Senate career next January.
"It’s time for people to focus on the road and give up distracted driving for good," said Rockefeller, a descendant of petroleum magnate John D. Rockefeller Sr., who moved to West Virginia as a VISTA volunteer in 1964 before serving in the state legislature, two terms as governor and five terms as senator.
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