- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2003

The National Transportation Safety Board, after reviewing a collision last year on the Capital Beltway that killed five people, recommended yesterday that all states pass laws prohibiting inexperienced drivers from using cell phones while driving.

“The accident driver’s distraction due to the wireless telephone conversation with her friend contributed to her loss of control of the vehicle,” said the NTSB report on the Feb. 1, 2002, accident near Largo.

A gust of wind jerked to the right the sport-utility vehicle driven by 20-year-old Dawn Richardson of Arlington. She steered to the left, forcing her Ford Explorer into the median, where the vehicle hurtled over a guardrail and flipped onto an oncoming minivan. A third vehicle slammed into the minivan. The woman and four persons in the minivan died.

The safety board also said other factors, such as the wind and the worn-out median barrier, contributed to the accident.

In addition, the high center of gravity and relatively low wheel base of her SUV, which has been cited as a cause of rollovers, made the vehicle difficult to control, the NTSB said.

Nevertheless, the accident might have been avoided had the driver been more experienced and not been distracted by her cell phone.

This was the NTSB’s first investigation of a traffic accident involving cell-phone use.

A Harvard study released last year estimated that about one in 20 traffic accidents in the country involve a driver talking on a cell phone.

The research from the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis suggested that traffic accidents caused by drivers talking on cell phones killed about 2,600 people and injured 330,000.

Other studies, such as one from the psychology department at the University of Kansas, found that driving while talking on a hands-free cell phone was no safer than driving while propping the phone between the driver’s neck and shoulder.

Diverting concentration from the road to a conversation created the greater hazard, the study said.

Fast-moving vehicles can travel 200 feet in the 1.5 seconds of distraction common to drivers talking on cell phones, the NTSB said.

Other distractions can include disciplining children, adjusting the radio or swatting insects, said Michele McMurtry, the NTSB’s project manager.

“In particular, in the Washington area, we see a lot of people reading newspapers, magazines, books,” Miss McMurtry said.

The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association said other distractions, such as looking at scenery, can be worse. The trade group, however, agreed with the NTSB that a media campaign should be used to raise awareness.

“To make safety a priority for all drivers, the NTSB has honed in on the key to safety — education,” group President Tom Wheeler said in a statement. “This should light a fire under educational efforts on all levels, and we hope to see more media outlets and safety organizations joining us in the effort.”

Although Miss Richardson had no restrictions mentioned on her driver’s license, NTSB officials described her as being relatively inexperienced with daily driving. The cell-phone use made the problem worse.

“A second to two seconds of additional time … could result in drivers being able to avoid up to 60 percent of the accidents that occur today,” said Joseph Osterman, the NTSB director of the Office of Highway Safety.

Only New York bans drivers from using hand-held cell phones. Legislatures in Maryland, Virginia and the District have considered similar legislation but have not been able to win approval.

New Jersey and Maine prohibit drivers with learner’s permits from using cell phones.

The NTSB recommended that all states prohibit drivers with learner’s permits and intermediate licenses from using cell phones, pagers or other wireless devices.

The safety board also recommended that states closely monitor hazards of cell-phone use by including a driver-distraction code on accident-investigation forms. Sixteen states use such a code at this time.

The board said the federal government should require driver-education programs to include instruction on the dangers of cell-phone use while driving.

Miss Richardson had been driving an SUV she had bought that day. She had received 15 calls on her cell phone in the four hours before the collision, the NTSB said.

She was following her boyfriend to his parents’ home in Prince George’s County along an unfamiliar route when the two became separated in traffic. The boyfriend heard Miss Richardson yell, then the call was disconnected. The boyfriend, who was not identified, drove back to investigate and came upon the accident scene.

The NTSB also blamed cell-phone use for a fatal collision between two Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway trains near Clarendon, Texas, on May 28 last year.

The crash killed a train engineer who was talking on his cell phone, and caused more than $8 million in damage. Other crew members jumped off the trains to safety.

The board concluded that the accident probably had been caused by the coal train engineer’s being distracted when he should have been watching the tracks. The NTSB recommended that the Federal Railroad Administration enforce further restrictions on cell-phone use by train crews.

“It was a pretty clear case that the cell phone distracted the engineer,” NTSB spokeswoman Lauren Peduzzi said. “The first case wasn’t as clear cut — a young driver, a new car and lack of experience.”

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