Distracted Drivers on Eighteen Wheels

On January first, Illinois joined the substantial minority of states who currently ban text messaging while driving. The new state law also bans checking email, updating social networking sites and general web-surfing while driving as well. The fact that the Illinois state legislature felt the need to specify a ban on surfing the web while driving signals that a new trend in legislation may be on the horizon.

It is no longer sufficient for states to ban texting while driving or hand-held cell phone use. New handheld technology and in-vehicle technology which promote the use of the Internet while driving are the newest targets for advocates and lawmakers who want technology that contributes to the nation's distracted driver problem banned from the road.

As studies have shown that distracted drivers of large commercial vehicles are even more dangerous than distracted drivers of smaller vehicles, Americans who travel by motor vehicle have reason to worry about the impact of putting Internet-based technology into the hands or cabs of commercial vehicle drivers.

Texting Bans Abound

Late last year, President Obama signed an executive order requiring federal employees to refrain from texting while driving government-owned vehicles. Last month, the Transportation Department banned truck and bus drivers from texting while operating commercial vehicles weighing over 10,000 pounds. Truck drivers who violate the new federal law will be subject to civil or criminal penalties including fines up to $2,750.00.

These laws are only the latest in a national trend of lawmaking that has resulted in 19 states banning texting while driving for all drivers and six states banning all hand-held cell phone use while driving. The Transportation Department has stated that it is additionally working on regulations that would restrict the use of cell phones by truckers and the use of the in-vehicle computers that truck drivers use to communicate with dispatchers. Lawmakers' recent focus on restricting distracted driving among truck drivers likely relates to the decrease in road-safety that occurs when truckers, in particular, become distracted.

The Distracted Driver Plague

A study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute reports that the likelihood of a crash due to cell-phone use disproportionately affects commercial truck drivers in comparison with car drivers. The study reports that:

  • The risk of an accident is 5.9 times more likely for a truck driver who is dialing a phone, as opposed to the 2.8 times risk increase for a car driver
  • The risk of an accident that a truck driver faces when reaching for an electronic device is 6.7 times higher, as opposed to the 1.4 times risk increase for a car driver

In addition, a study by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration discovered that 71 percent of the crashes in which commercial truck drivers played a part involved at least one distracted driving practice. In 2007, 413,000 large trucks were involved in crashes resulting in nearly 5,000 fatalities. In light of such statistics, it is not surprising that lawmakers are resisting the implementation of even more distracting technology than the cell phones, which currently distract a large proportion of drivers.

Even More Distractions...

There are three different kinds of distraction that frequently plague drivers:

  • Manual – involves taking one or both hands off the wheel
  • Visual – involves, however briefly, taking one's eyes off the road
  • Cognitive – involves taking one's mind off the task of driving and the action on the road

Interacting with hand-held or touch screen in-vehicle technology involves all three kinds of distractions. Carnegie Mellon has reported that driving while using any kind of cell phone reduces the amount of brain activity needed to drive safely by 37 percent. To what extent brain activity, needed for safe driving, is reduced by driver interaction with Internet-ready devices has yet to be determined. However, it is a safe assumption that these devices reduce attention to driving by an even greater amount.

Lawmakers have recently turned their attention to new "infotainment" systems designed for cars and trucks as concern grows among the public that utilizing such devices while driving could prove to be even more dangerous than texting while driving. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is planning on meeting with automakers to discuss the issue. LaHood has been a vocal opponent of technology that raises the risks of distracted driving. He has so far declined to comment on whether he will try to restrict in-vehicle Internet-ready technology, but given his opposition to cell phone use and texting while driving, it is likely that LaHood will push for some regulation of the new technology.

Questions and Answers

If you have been injured in an accident involving a distracted driver, please contact an experienced personal injury attorney. An attorney can answer any questions you have regarding your claim and explain your legal rights and options.