- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 19, 2000

Vehicles laden with electronic devices like cellular phones, computers and navigation devices pose a new safety threat on the roads, federal highway regulators and transportation industry representatives said yesterday.

Changing radio stations, eating, talking to other passengers, shaving and applying makeup remain common causes of car accidents, National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) officials said at a hearing yesterday. But the information age has added technological gadgets like cellular phones, navigation systems and in-vehicle TVs and computers.

"Driver distraction in all its forms is a real threat to the safety of American roads," said Rosalyn Millman, NHTSA deputy administrator. "This threat is growing and growing fast."

She was one of more than a dozen speakers representing the automobile industry, motorcyclists, the cellular-telephone industry, safety groups, AAA and others who expressed their concerns during the NHTSA-organized hearing. An agency official said NHTSA is trying to collect data on distractions before deciding whether it will recommend any legislation to Congress.

But cellular-phone and driver advocates warned that legislation won't help matters.

One-quarter of the 6.3 million car accidents each year result from distraction, according to an NHTSA study. The agency also found that 44 percent of drivers more than 46 million people have wireless phones in their cars, and an even larger number hold a phone while driving. Seven percent of drivers have e-mail access, and 3 percent have fax capabilities.

A 1997 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the danger of driving while using cellular phones was comparable to driving while drunk.

But Mark Edwards, managing director for the Traffic Safety Department at AAA, said not enough is known about driving distractions to enact legislation preventing their use.

"We don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water," he said.

Listening to the radio not talking on the phone was the biggest distraction listed in a AAA member survey in 1994 and 1999. This year, talking to passengers ranked as the biggest distraction.

Chatting on a cell phone ranked fifth each time.

"You would have expected something to change [during the five years]," Mr. Edwards said. "What fascinates me is that talking on the phone remains at 20 percent. That's all we know."

He cited several other studies and surveys in which drivers were given tasks memorizing several words in order or speaking on the phone about something important so that their level of distraction could be gauged. The results showed that thinking creates the main distractions, he said.

Ultimately, "the question is not, 'Should we eliminate distractions?' but how much distraction is too much distraction," Mr. Edwards.

AAA urged federal regulators to do more research and start mass education programs for drivers in the meantime.

Tom Wheeler, president and chief executive officer of the District of Columbia-based Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, agreed that education is the best way to make drivers aware of the responsibilities of being behind the wheel.

"Education has to be the answer," Mr. Wheeler said.

Curbing the use of cellular phones in cars won't help, he said. Last year, 118,000 emergency calls were made via cellular phones to hospitals and police a statistic not to be discounted, he added.

"There are a litany of benefits to having a cell phone. The question is, 'What do you do about a phone in the car to make sure people are aware of the responsibilities of using the phone responsibly?' " Mr. Wheeler said.

CTIA has been trying to educate cellular-phone users, reminding them that "safety is your most important call."

Brochures describing the responsibilities of driving and speaking on the phone are included in the information packages of many wireless-service providers, who are members of CTIA. The group also has bought billboard advertising around Washington to promote its program.

All 50 states and the District have laws covering reckless driving, but only half have laws against inattentive driving, according to NHTSA.

None of those laws has diminished accidents, so legislation is not the way to deal with the problem, Mr. Wheeler said.

Meanwhile, NHTSA is calling on states to include data on cellular-phone use when investigating car accidents. Only Minnesota and Oklahoma now provide such information.

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