- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 27, 2001

RICHMOND Is it talking on the cell phone, changing the radio station, looking down to grab a cup of coffee, or the animated conversation with the passenger that is causing most of the accidents in Virginia?
A new report shows that distracted drivers are the leading cause of all crashes statewide, but not enough is known about what is distracting them to pass any helpful legislation.
The report, which the Transportation Safety Training Center's Crash Investigation Team prepared at the request of the Department of Motor Vehicles, recommends that police reports of fatal car crashes be required to include more specifics.
In Virginia, officers can indicate on police reports that an accident was caused by a driver's inattention, but there is no room to elaborate partly because it is hard to know the specific cause of the accident.
"Unless the driver tells the police officer exactly what they're doing, there is a witness or there is hard-core evidence, it's difficult to find out what really happened," said David McAllister, a highway engineer and the crash team's leader.
In a 31/2-year study of 444 fatal crashes caused by driver inattention, investigators were unable to pin down the cause in 79 percent of cases, the report says. Almost 80 of the accidents happened because the driver fell asleep or was tired.
Male drivers were involved in 74 percent of the crashes, even though they make up 49 percent of all licensed drivers in Virginia, the report found.
That's because they typically drive faster and longer, take more risks and are more aggressive, said Lori Rice, the team's psychologist. "And they have more electronic gadgets to play with," she said.
Last month, New York became the first state to ban use of hand-held cell phones while driving, and similar legislation is pending in 42 other states.
But the report states that "there is insufficient crash evidence to warrant this type of restriction with the Commonwealth."
The Crash Investigation Team examined 30 car crashes caused by distracted drivers between April and October. Nine of the 30 involved cell phones.
Some see hands-free cell phones as the solution.
But "hands-free phones are not safe," Mr. McAllister said. "It's not the act of dialing, holding or retrieving a phone, it's the actual act of having a conversation."
Many drivers don't realize how far they've traveled when they take their eyes off the road for a second, Mr. McAllister said.
For example, a person who looks away from the highway for one second while driving 70 mph travels 105 feet.
"The more complex the task is and the longer it takes you away from driving, the greater your chance of crashing," Mr. McAllister said. "You can lose a lot of distance and not even know you did it."
That's the purpose of the report: to let drivers know they can prevent some accidents by changing their actions, he said. The report will be distributed to federal, state and local law enforcement officials and legislators.
"At this stage in the game, if you tell someone they can't use a cell phone, where do you draw the line?" Miss Rice asked. "Why don't you tell the woman she can't put on lipstick or talk to her passenger?"

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