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Back to Archives | Back to August 2012 Contents 

Highway Safety Initiatives

Distracted Driving: An Ongoing Problem

By Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP

Simply put, distracted driving is focusing on anything other than driving while driving, and it is contributing to more traffic deaths every year. As a matter of fact, from 1999 to 2008, distracted driving increased from being responsible for 10.9 percent to 15.8 percent of the total number of traffic fatalities in the United States;1 and in 2010, the lives of 3,092 people were lost in crashes involving distracted drivers.2

The duties of a police officer can involve types of multitasking that divert an officer’s attention away from driving and are in addition to those activities in which civilian drivers engage. Of course, attempting to undertake at least two tasks simultaneously often compromises one’s ability to complete either effectively.3 These myriad activities can include activating emergency equipment; attempting to prevent citations, reports, or a briefcase from flying off the passenger seat during a pursuit or an expedited response; entering queries into, acknowledging calls for service and other dispatches, and monitoring messages on mobile data terminals; acting on radar, lidar (light detection and ranging), and license-plate-reader alerts; and talking on a police radio. Obviously, like their civilian counterparts, some officers will be sending personal text messages or talking on cellphones.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held this spring in Washington, D.C., a one-day forum, “Attentive Driving: Countermeasures for Distraction,” at which various aspects of distracted driving were explored. At the foundation of the forum was the NTSB’s recommendation late last year calling on all states and Washington, D.C., to “ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers.”4 This recommendation resulted from the NTSB’s investigation of an August 5, 2010, Missouri crash in which two people died and 38 others were injured in a chain-reaction collision where a pickup truck—the driver of which had sent and received 11 text messages in the 11 minutes leading up to the collision—had run into the rear of a truck tractor that had slowed for an active work zone. The pickup truck, in turn, had been struck from behind by a school bus, and the school bus then was hit by a second school bus.5

The NTSB’s recommendation is far broader than President Obama’s 2009 executive order that essentially prohibited federal employees from texting on government-owned electronic equipment while driving any vehicle,6 and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood’s development of a sample texting-while-driving law to provide guidance to states that may be considering enacting or amending their statutes.7 As of June 2012, 39 states have enacted antitexting laws and 10 states have passed laws banning all handheld phone use by drivers.8

More significant highlights from the NTSB forum follow:

  • Verified cellphone use while driving—either hands-free or handheld—was associated with a fourfold increase in crash risk,9 but the U.S. Department of Transportation has not yet embraced the NTSB’s recommendation to prohibit hands-free cellphone use.10 The significance of a driver’s being engaged in any cellphone conversation as opposed to just talking with an attentive passenger is that the latter can act as a second set of eyes, can warn the operator of developing situations requiring immediate action, and can cease talking when the driver needs to devote greater attention to the road.11 The person on the other end of a cellphone conversation obviously is unable to assist the driver with driving.
  • Distraction was likened to a disease that spreads through the population, for when a driver sends a text message, it is transmitted to a number of other people who also may be driving and who may feel obliged to respond, thus connoting that texting while driving is normal or acceptable.12
  • Cellphones should be banned in school zones and in work zones.13 This location-specific recommendation mirrors that of the Governors Highway Safety Association to target speed violations in school zones and in work zones.14
  • Quick looks away from the road should be limited to less than two seconds, since there is a statistically significant increase in crash risk with glances that are two seconds or longer.15 Significantly, sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes off the road an average of two to three times longer—that is, four to six seconds.16 However, drivers can be taught to measure two seconds or be warned when their glances exceed two seconds via in-vehicle technology that soon will become available.17 Moreover, novice drivers can be trained to rubberneck less through driver education programs that actually demonstrate to drivers the likelihood of crashing when engaged in rubbernecking.18 Driving simulators appear to be one viable means of inculcating in drivers the need to reduce away-from-the-road glances that can lead to crashes.
  • Education alone is insufficient to change drivers’ behavior toward distraction,19 and simply teaching drivers about risk is rarely enough to change behavior.20 For example, merely telling the driver’s education student that passengers in vehicles operated by teen drivers increase crash risk seldom will discourage the novice driver from wanting to transport friends.21
  • Another thread that ran through the NTSB forum was that the studies now being cited and discussed were undertaken a decade or so ago, and because of the rapidity of technological developments in recent years, today’s distraction issues were not prevalent then.22 Social media has increased exponentially the amount of information available to everyone—including those who are driving—and likely will continue to do so in the future.
  • Technology seems to be one feasible means by which to mitigate distracted driving crashes. Attentive cars can direct drivers’ awareness to relevant events of interest and simultaneously can offer drivers feedback regarding the dangers of their risky behavior.23 Similarly, crash awareness applications in vehicles already are beginning to prevent crashes that occur because of distraction, fatigue, and other types of inattention.24 For example, forward collision avoidance systems and adaptive directional headlights are proving effective in reducing the number of vehicle crashes,25 while rearview cameras are preventing children from being run over when they cannot otherwise be seen behind backing vehicles.

While universal adoption of the NTSB recommendation likely would reduce distracted driving crashes and the deaths and serious injuries they cause, its implementation regrettably may be akin to trying to put toothpaste back in the tube or to reinstate Prohibition. However, the importance of the research cannot be downplayed either in its application to all drivers or to law enforcement officers: Cellphone use or text messaging while driving significantly increases crash risk.

Law enforcement leaders need to develop sound and reasonable policies and, after instituting relevant training, aggressively enforce those policies prior to collisions resulting in death or serious injury. Additionally, law enforcement leaders need to encourage and support research allowing officers to devote greater effort to driving
and less time to attempting to perform other tasks simultaneously—even if this translates into officers’ being required to stop their cruisers before initiating certain types of communication. After all, officers’ lives often depend on the actions of their leaders. ♦

1National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Attentive Driving—Countermeasures for Distraction Forum, transcript, March 27, 2012, 14, (accessed July 12, 2012).
2U.S. Department of Transportation (US DOT), NTSB, “Distraction.Gov,” (accessed July 12, 2012).
3Attentive Driving, 55; and National Safety Council (NSC), Understanding the Distracted Brain: Why Driving
While Using Hands-Free Cell Phones Is Risky Behavior,
white paper, March 2010, 5, (accessed July 12, 2012).
4NTSB, “No Call, No Text, No Update behind the Wheel: NTSB Calls for Nationwide Ban on PEDs While Driving,” press release, December 13, 2011, (accessed July 12, 2013).
6Exec. Order No. 13513, “Federal Leadership on Reducing Text Messaging While Driving,” Presidential Documents, Fed. Reg. 74 192 (October 6, 2009), (accessed July 12, 2012).
7US DOT, “Sample Law to Prohibit Texting While Driving,” February 2010, (accessed July 12, 2012).
8US DOT, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving, June 2012, DOT HS 811 629, 13, (accessed July 12, 2012).
9Attentive Driving, 26, 29, 30; David G. Kidd and Anne T. McCartt, Review of “Cell Phone Use and Crash Risk: Evidence for Positive Bias” by Richard A. Young (Arlington, Va.: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, March 2012), 1, (accessed July 12, 2012); and Understanding the Distracted Brain, 11.
10Attentive Driving, 42.
11Ibid., 31, 44.
12Ibid., 55-56, 69.
13Ibid., 20.
14Governors Highway Safety Association, Survey of the States: Speeding and Aggressive Driving (March 1, 2012), 6, 11, 23, (accessed July 12, 2012).
15Attentive Driving, 63–64.
16US DOT, NHTSA, Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving, 4.
17Attentive Driving, 58, 67–68.
18Ibid., 46.
19Ibid., 21
20Ibid., 51
21Ibid., 34, 44.
22Ibid., 61-62.
23Ibid., 23.
24Ibid., 27
25Tim Beissmann, “Advanced Crash Avoidance Tech Nets Mixed Results in IIHS Study,” Car, July 5, 2012, (accessed July 12, 2012).

Please cite as:

Richard J. Ashton, "Distracted Driving: An Ongoing Problem," Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 79 (August 2012): 100–102.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. 8, August 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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