Distractions take their toll on Minnesota driversby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
Every year as many as 100 people in Minnesota die in vehicle crashes because they were distracted while driving. Surprisingly, talking on a cell phone while driving is way down the list of distractions. Fiddling with the sound system, talking to passengers and other distractions all rank much higher. Minnesota and most other states have no laws specifically prohibiting activities that might distract drivers. However a small but growing number of communities around the country are taking action on their own and passing laws that allow local police to ticket drivers who are distracted.
St. Paul, Minn. — Four years ago the elected officials in Shelby township, a suburb of Detroit, Michigan passed a distracted driving law. Township supervisor Skip Maccarone says if you're stopped in Shelby township for a primary offense like speeding the officer also has the authority to issue a ticket for up to $500 for distracted driving.
"Tending a child in the back seat, having a dog on your front lap, talking on your phone, eating, drinking, doing makekup, reading a magazine while to trying to operate that motor vehicle, you will get a second ticket for what's known as distracted driving," he says.
Maccarone says one of the first citations issued was in the parlance of baseball, a triple.
"The soda between his legs, eating a cheeseburger, talking on his phone," Maccarone says. "(He lost) control of his car, rolled over in a ditch."
Every year as many as 4000 people in this country, safety officials say, die in vehicle crashes where driver distraction was a cause.
Minnesota traffic safety director Kathy Swanson says distracted driving is a factor in as many as a fifth of the state's fatal crashes.
"In 2004, there were 100 people killed in crashes where that was a factor. About 12,500 people were injured in crashes where that's a factor," she says.
The biggest distractions? All manner of objects and things outside the vehicle account for nearly a third of the crashes. Kathy Swanson has seen driver distractions first hand.
"My husband's a bird watcher and everytime there's a hawk or an eagle, I wish I was behind the wheel rather than him," she says.
Nearly a dozen and half states, but not Minnesota, regulate the use of cell phones by drivers in an attempt to reduce driver distractions.
However Swanson says fatal crash investigations here and in other states show cell phones are well behind other factors as a cause of distracted driving.
"Less than one percent of the crashes that occur get coded as having a driver on a cell," she says.
Even so, Swanson's opinion is no one's driving improves while talking on a cell phone.
Jane Stutts agrees. Stutts is a principal investigator at the University of North Carolina's Highway Traffic Safety Research Center. A few years ago she enlisted people who agreed to be videotaped while driving.
Her research affirmed a widely held assumption that older drivers are less likely to be distracted by activities which afflict younger drivers.
"They did not do the eating and drinking and the manipulating the radio and talking on the cell phone that the younger drivers did," she says. "But on the other hand they could also be more easily distracted by things going on outside their vehicle."
Congress and most states have declined to pass laws designed to prevent distracted driving.
Once again this session Minnesota lawmakers are being asked to consider limits on cell phone by drivers, proposals that have failed to win approval in the past.
Cities and counties can follow Shelby Township's example in Michigan and pass local regulations as long as they don't conflict with state laws, according to the Minnesota attorney general's office.
Few if any studies so far have measured the distraction of a new generation of gizmos appearing in motor vehicles, like the global positioning system in Sarah Kinney's car.
Kinney has nick-named the GPS, Jennifer.
Kinney enters an address on a small screen and Jennifer gently, if insistently, calls out directions in a computer-generated voice. Kinney says the position of her navigation aid and the sound of a voice reduce the level of distraction when she's in unfamiliar surroundings.
"It is not on the dash," she says. "It is up-mounted on my windshield and is about a three inch by three inch square so it's not in my way it doesn't block any of my vision."
Some navigation devices cause drivers to look down at screens mounted in dashboards and they don't generate a voice allowing a driver to watch the road.
These and a range of other diversions such as screens which allow the playing of DVD's raise new questions about how vehicle technology is reducing or increasing the number of distractions for drivers.
- Morning Edition, 04/07/2006, 7:50 a.m.