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TalkBack Live

Are Americans Too Distracted When They Drive?

Aired June 27, 2000 - 3:25 p.m. ET


BOBBIE BATTISTA, HOST: Are you driven to distraction every time you pull out of the driveway? Do you eat? Comb your hair? Put on makeup? Read the paper? Yell at your kids? Talk on the phone?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On occasion, I could have two incoming calls at the same time, or an incoming and outgoing.

MARK EDWARDS, MANAGING DIRECTOR OF TRAFFIC SAFETY, AAA: The thing that kind of startled us all is that this is something we all do.


BATTISTA: A group called the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety claims any of those activities can be lethal.


EDWARDS: The research tells us that somewhere between 25-50 percent of all motor vehicle crashes in this country really have driver distraction as their root cause.


BATTISTA: So what's the solution? Do we ban cell phones? Arrest talkers? Target dining and driving? Just how far should we go to get distracted drivers off the road?

Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to TALKBACK LIVE.

Well, if eating and driving are dangerous, will they outlaw drive-through restaurants? Just a thought. Here's what the study says about dangerous distractions, though: 70 percent of people surveyed say they routinely talk to passengers while driving. Forty- seven percent adjust temperature, radio, and other controls. Twenty- nine percent eat or read while driving. Twenty-six percent say they pick up something that falls. And 19 percent talk on their cell phones.

Let's find out more about this campaign now to keep our hands on the wheels and our minds on driving. Mark Edwards is director of traffic safety at the American Automobile Association. He announced the Distracted and Dangerous Driver Campaign at a news conference this morning. And we are having, I think, some audio problems with Mark.

Mark, you can't hear me?

EDWARDS: Yes, sir.

BATTISTA: Oh, you can. Can you hear me?

EDWARDS: Yes, I can.

BATTISTA: OK, great, good. Welcome to the show.

EDWARDS: Thanks. Good to be here.

BATTISTA: Now this -- your study found that a quarter to a half of all accidents were caused, most likely, by distracted drivers. That's a pretty big gap, from a quarter to a half. But how do you figure out whether or not an accident's been caused by a distraction?

EDWARDS: Well, I think, yes, I think that the wide range in the estimates of a quarter to a half reflects the impreciseness in our definition. But there have been a number of studies done over the years that have looked into accidents in great detail; in some cases, hundreds of accidents, in some cases, thousands. And that judgment that distraction was a factor for the most part is reached from a team of crash investigators who actually studied the accident. That would include interviews from the people involved in the accident as well as other details.

BATTISTA: Some of those numbers, I thought -- and other people did too -- were surprisingly low, like only 47 percent of people say that, you know, they adjust something in their car. I mean, I would think that, you know, almost 100 percent of people will either turn up or down a radio or adjust their air conditioning, or -- I don't know, that seems surprising to me. And then, 19 percent cell phone use. That seems way low...

EDWARDS: Well...

BATTISTA: ... at least in Atlanta.

EDWARDS: Well, I think that's what more important than the actual value -- because in surveys, you always have fluctuations in results, is the order. And there has actually been three surveys done that we're aware of, one in '94, one in '99, and of course ours in 2000. And in all of those, cell phone use comes in about forth or fifth on the list. First on the list are things like eating, carrying on conversations, adjusting automobile controls and the like.

So, you're right, some of the numbers in the survey might not seem to make too much sense. What fascinated us, and I think really makes the point, is the order stays the same. And that the proportion across all distracters tells us that there isn't one that's a major factor that stands out among all the rest.

BATTISTA: Something the audience also needs to be aware of: Cell phone companies are part of the consortium of groups here that are behind the study and the campaign, correct?

EDWARDS: Well, there are -- actually, there are a whole lot of organizations -- there are 8,000 employers involved in the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety. So, yes, we have cell phone manufacturers and distributors represented among our membership, as we do virtually every segment of the United States industry. And they did contribute in part to the development of this training program, as did all our other partners.

BATTISTA: Are they concerned, some of those companies, are they concerned about possible liability issues as we introduce more and more features into our cars?

EDWARDS: Well, you know, I don't know, and I couldn't speak for them. But I think anybody that manufacturers an automotive product these days -- or a product that can be used in an automobile -- is concerned about safety. And I've been in traffic safety for over 30 years, and one of the things that I'm really please to see is organizations, like those that are part of NETS, actually getting involved in traffic safety. I think we do a lot better with them than we do without them.

BATTISTA: Well, you've not -- OK, you guys have not, though, recommended any legislation or any bans on any kind of distractions in the car? What you're recommending is what? An education or training program? How would that work?

EDWARDS: What Nets has actually put together is a one-hour training program that's delivered through employers to employees, and that's employers are used to training used to training their people. It's something that employers do all of the time. So because we're an organization that's focused on delivering traffic safety messages and programs through employers, we built a program that they can use and is really tailored to them.

But for the most part, it's not so much that we're opposed to new legislation as we are trying to recognize the fact that the legislation already exists on the book. The trooper at our press conference this morning pointed out he had written tickets for engaging in these kinds of behaviors that produce distracted driving, and if you talk to any state police around the country, you're going to find that they've got all the laws they need. The last thing they want is another law, and they have what they need to enforce laws that prevent people from doing these kinds of things.

So I think banning is something that if you think about it, it doesn't make a lot of sense. In the 1930s, we talked about banning radios from cars, and I don't think any of us would want that today. So I think banning is a view that looks at one side of technology, and telecommunications and all the distracters that for cars without looking at the benefits that those devices bring. I mean, I don't think we're going to ban passengers from cars. And I think one of the challenges when you look at these distractions is that they're really intellectually based, and I don't think we're going to pass laws that say you can't think while driving. BATTISTA: All right, Mark Edwards, thanks very much for being with us today. Appreciate your time. Thanks for waiting for our late start.

EDWARDS: You're welcome.

BATTISTA: All right, joining us now by phone is Fran Bents, who is vice president at Dynamic Science Inc. Her company was contracted by the National Highway Safety Administration to compile cell phone accident- related information. Also joining us Is Jacob Sullum, senior editor of "Reason" magazine, a publication from a libertarian perspective. He's also author of "For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health."

Fran, let me start with you quickly. Educational training type of programs, is this enough?

FRAN BENTS, DYNAMIC SCIENCE INC.: Well, you know, it's interesting, Bobbie, I have here a quote from the January-February issue of "Traffic Safety" magazine, which is published by the National Safety Council, and the quote is from Susan Arbow (ph) from the Net organization who recently conducted this survey, and it says that employer-sponsored safe driving programs make good sense, but if the employers are not required to do it by law, they don't do it. Educational programs are always valuable, but they're not necessarily sufficient, especially to address complex issues. And I think much of the importance of the cell phone legislation issue is the fact that people look to their government for guidance on issues related to health and safety. And laws are not only used for law enforcement, laws are also used to educate the public as to what acceptable limits for behavior may be. We needed specific alcohol laws, for instance, since reckless driving laws weren't enough to address the problem and see resolution, reduction in numbers of crashes and fatality. I think the same is true with regard to the cell phone issue.People assume it's OK to talk on the cell phone as they drive down the road because there are no laws in the U.S. that prohibit it.

BATTISTA: Let me get Jacob in here, because you do not look for the government for more laws on that, do you?

JACOB SULLUM, "REASON" MAGAZINE: Well, I'm skeptical. I think that one thing we have to keep in mind is that you're dealing with a monopoly when you talk about the government as an operator of roads. Now if you can imagine private roads, what you would have is people who balance safety against the other interests of people using the roads. So if you tried to impose requirements that were too intrusive or too burdensome, people would go to your competitor's roads. Now we don't have the situation because the government has a monopoly. Therefore, it's imposing one solution on everybody. It's, therefore, important that it keep in mind the interests of all taxpayers, all the people who might use the roads, and consider factors like how big a risk does this represent? How common is the activity? How intrusive or burdensome would it be to prevent the activity? And how easy it would be to enforce it? One of the interesting things that comes out of this research is that mental distractions seem to be at least as important as physical distractions. In other words, you may have eyes on the road but mind may be elsewhere, and that can result in an accident.

On the way to the studio today, I was thinking about -- as I drove to the train, I was thinking about what I might say when I went on the air. No doubt that distracted me, and that kind of thing could lead to an accident, but we would be hard-pressed to come up with a legislative solution for that. How would you ban people from thinking thoughts that might distract them? There are all sorts of things that would be not only difficult to enforce, but it would be problematic from the point of view of individual freedom.

BATTISTA: So you're concerned about a slippery slope-type of situation. But at the same time, a lot of things are behavioral. The cell phone issue involves a device. So you know, it's difficult to ban or make laws against behavior, you know.

SULLUM: Sure, it would be easier to ban something like talking on a cell phone, but you really would have to make the case this was comparable to, say, driving while drunk. Now if it turns out that talking on a cell phone is as dangerous as driving with a blood alcohol level of, say, .10 or .08, or even more so, that might cause us to re-evaluate how reasonable such a restriction is. On the other hand, it might cause us take a second look at drunk driving laws and ask whether their definition of driving while impaired is reasonable.

BATTISTA: Fran, that's difficult to do, isn't it, in the United States, to compile a study that draws the correlation between cell phones and accidents, because of the phone companies largely?

BENTS: Well, that's right. The criticism that there is no statistical evidence to date that demonstrates that cellular telephone use by drivers is a serious problem is an accurate statement, but to say that a lack of statistical data is the same thing as a lack of evidence really isn't true? I think many of us can relate instances where we have felt a risk because of behavior of a cell phone driver who was behind us or in front of us or we observed someone weaving. It's become such a common thing. There is a public outcry. There are laws proposed in many, many states now because the constituents are asking for these laws. They're asking for protection. Yes, our highway system is owned by the federal government, by the states, so yes, it's monopolistic in that sense, but it carries with it a responsibility, and safety is a common good.

BATTISTA: You bring up a good issue, Fran, but ti seems that oftentimes those efforts by state legislators or municipalities never make it out of committee. In the audience with us here is Barbara Mobley. She is a member of the legislature here in Georgia, and you proposed some kind of I think ban on cell phones while driving?

BARBARA MOBLEY: No, It's not a ban. It is that those people who are in the lane of traffic should use due care if using a cell phone or if using any other kinds of instrumentalities in the phone -- or in the car. It is suggesting the penalties are enhanced if there is an accident or injury that is caused or damage that is caused while they're in the lane of traffic and using these items.

BATTISTA: This would be a law, and this would be another violation of the law they could be charged with?

MOBLEY: Yes, it's already on the books in the state of Georgia, that if you are negligent while driving or if you use undue care, but the penalties have not been enhanced. There has been a proliferation of accidents caused by uses of cell phones in the lane of traffic, and so we're just saying that for those people who decide that it is not negligent to use the phones to, as a public safety issue, create havoc on other drivers, then that they should have an enhanced penalty.

BATTISTA: Is this going to pass, do you think?

MOBLEY: Well, it will be introduced again next year. This session is over with for this time, but next term, it will be reintroduced.

BATTISTA: All right. Let me go to the audience quickly before we go to break.

Is it Shimei (ph)? Shimei from Antigua.

SHIMEI: What I'm saying is that the emphasis should be more on the conservation of good habits, self-discipline, rather than legislation, because you want people to do things because it's the right thing to do and because they know it's the right thing to do, not be forcing them because, oh, I have to do this because the law is going to come down on me. If people realize that they should care about the other person and be that way, then we would have less problems.

BATTISTA: I want to live in her world.

Jude, let me go quickly to you.

JUDE: Yes, I think for most of the distractions, they should use common sense, but in cell phones, perhaps they should have the phone companies or new technology come out that would disable or limit the amount of time, that if the phone is going more than 25 miles an hour.

BATTISTA: Food for thought. We've got to take a break. When we come back, can driving while distracted land you in legal hot water? We'll talk to a personal injury lawyer in a few moments.

In the meantime, take part in our online TALKBACK LIVE viewer vote. It's Today's question: Do you support a ban on cell phone use while driving?

Back in a second.


BATTISTA: Let me do some e-mail here quickly. "I know what I can and cannot do safely while driving. I don't need another law. This is another way the government is intruding into our lives." That's from Jim in California.

James of Missouri says, "I have been cut off, wrecked and almost killed by careless drivers who talk on their phones, eat, and do other things while trying to drive. They are a danger."

And Kaletchi (ph) in New York says, "We need to make a law making drivers pull over to make calls. We can't ban them outright as cell phones come in handy during emergencies.

All right. Joining our discussion now is Csaba Csere, editor in chief of "Car and Driver" magazine. Also with us, Thomas Demetrio, a lawyer and partner at a national personal injury wrongful death law firm.

Gentlemen, welcome to you. Csaba, let me start with you because you don't really think this is that much of a problem. Are we being misled here?

CSABA CSERE, EDITOR IN CHIEF, "CAR AND DRIVER": I don't think we're being misled, but I think we need to keep these statistics in context. When we talk about 20-50 percent of accidents being caused by driver distractions, that isn't quite what the study said. And that study said they're factors.

And the safety experts tell us that half the accidents are caused by drunk driving, 70 percent are cause by aggressive drivers, 30 percent are caused by speeding. All of a sudden, you know, we've got more causes than accidents, and it's very, very difficult to decide exactly what the causes are.

The other thing is that right now we currently have the safest driving in the United States we've ever had. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration just released the preliminary statistics for 1999 that said that the traffic death rate was 1.5 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. That's one-third of what it was 30 years ago. So whatever problem we have with distracted drivers, it can't be too bad.

BATTISTA: You'd never know that living in Atlanta, so that's good to know.

Thomas, let me ask you. I would assume that every state has laws on the books that deal with reckless driving. We're kind of talking more about negligent driving. Is there a difference? I mean, are there enough laws out there to cover all of this?

THOMAS DEMETRIO, TRIAL ATTORNEY: I think so. The duty of you and I as we go down the highway to one another is ordinary care. And the laws provide right now -- ensure that if there is negligence -- carelessness, putting on your make-up, making a phone call, eating popcorn, fixing Johnny's seat belt while driving -- there is accountability in our society throughout the 50 states. And if you're going to do something in a car that ordinarily you should do outside of a car, and unfortunate injuries occur because of it, the laws today are currently adequate to protect those who are unfortunately injured.

BATTISTA: Csaba, this situation could get worse. I mean, the more and more new features that car companies are coming out with or that people want to put into their cars, like Internet access. I hear this is next thing down the pike. Is that true? CSERE: Yes. Internet access is coming in the next year or two. And it's going to be here very rapidly. And I must say, I have some concerns about that one myself. But the way the car companies plan to approach it, is rather than having you typing in e-mail or reading e- mail off a screen, it's going to be voice activated, and you will command the computer to read you your e-mail. And, in fact, it will take the e-mail and read it to you.

This gets away from the problem of taking your eyes off the road or your hands off the wheel, but it still causes a mental distraction and that's ultimately the biggest issue we have.

BATTISTA: Can you answer it? Or, I mean, would you feel tempted to answer it and that might distract you?

CSERE: Well, I think the versions will allow answering of e-mail that will simply be you speaking and it will record your voice and either transmit that as a tape attachment to an e-mail or will convert it to text.

BATTISTA: Wow. Now as corporation -- let's say that's a car company idea and they start offering that as feature, Thomas. If there are accidents that are caused because somebody's using Internet access in their car, are the car makers concerned they could become liable in these situations?

DEMETRIO: They should be concerned about it. They are supplying yet another diversion that I don't think Mr. Ford envisioned when the first Model-T came off. If it's set up where it can't work while the car is in motion, that's one thing. And businessmen who rely on being in their car most of the working day can do some work while not moving. But by supplying -- this is another really very significant distraction -- I think they are exposing themselves to liability.

BATTISTA: A comment from Kelly in the audience.

KELLY: Yes, actually, recently my husband was pulled over on his way home from work one evening, a suspect of being a drunk driver when actually he was just eating a cheeseburger. So it can be distracting doing other things in the vehicle.

BATTISTA: Well, and Lee in Georgia e-mails us: "What's next, banning cheeseburgers? If you can't stay in your lane while driving, you should be pulled over and ticketed, phone or no phone."

Patricia's on the phone with us from Texas. Patricia?

PATRICIA: Hi. I had a wreck about a week and a half ago and it was mainly -- it was totally my fault. I had been on a trip two days prior and I was extremely tired. I don't believe that laws -- you know, the wreck was my fault. I was tired. I shouldn't have been driving, and I've learned my lesson. I don't think there should be a law legislating, you know, what I did. I just learned my lesson and I'm not going to do it again, you know.

BATTISTA: Well, we're glad you are OK. Thanks for calling in. Thomas, do most people admit that a distraction is what caused their accident, or do they try to cover that up?

DEMETRIO: This answer is going to surprise most people. Most people do admit it. Most people do say I was blinded by the sun, but kept going, or I was reaching for a package that was falling, or I was eating Kentucky Fried Chicken. Most people do admit at scene, and I think in part they think somehow that will exculpate them, that I really didn't do anything wrong, I was just distracted for a moment, when in fact the distraction led to sliding through the stop sign and somebody being seriously injured.

BATTISTA: We got to take a quick break. We'll be back in a moment.


BATTISTA: Let's talk a quick look at our TALKBACK LIVE online viewer vote results here. We had asked the question, do you support a ban on cell phone use while driving? Fifty-nine percent of the folks online said yes, 41 percent no. That's a little bit surprising, because our folks in there sometimes tend to be more conservative I think.

It does boil down to the question Joyce raised this issue a few moments ago of, you know, it kind of boils down is it, what's more important, my rights or the safety of other people -- Csaba?

CSERE: Well, the real question is that the most important safety factor is a competent driver paying attention to the task behind the wheel. Unfortunately, we're always going to be distracted by certain things, and the key is picking your spots. Don't try to dial your cell phone when you're on an icy road. Don't tune the radio when you're negotiating traffic in a complicated intersection. A little bit of common sense and some training, and this problem is not as great as it is.

BATTISTA: All right, Csaba Csere, thank you for joining us. Thomas Demetrio, appreciate you joining us today as well on our abbreviated show. And Fran Bents, if you're on the phone, thank you for joining us.

And thanks to our audience for being with us today. I appreciate all of them, and you as well.

We'll see you again tomorrow for more TALKBACK LIVE.



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