Safer roads via a tighter ban on devices

A Washington researcher this week released the state’s first study on the perils of using cellphones or other electronic devices while in the control of a vehicle, and — surprise! — it reaches the same conclusion found in dozens of other studies: distracted driving is dangerous.

Most drivers know this intuitively. To drive the point home, three years ago the Legislature made it a primary offense to use a hand-held mobile device or send texts while driving. It hasn’t worked.

Despite public safety advertising campaigns and law enforcement emphasis patrols, the new study suggests Washington’s roads are still flush with drivers who aren’t paying attention to the road.

The study found that one in 12 drivers was driving while using some kind of electronic device. Half of the drivers were texting. Beth Ebel, a Harborview Medical Center trauma doctor, and volunteers collected the data by analyzing the behaviors of 7,800 drivers at intersections in six counties.

Those findings fit with a multitude of other studies. The National Safety Council has reported that 25 percent of all motor vehicle crashes nationwide involve cellphones. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 69 percent of drivers talk on their cellphones, and close to half of all teens text while driving.

But the most alarming finding comes from a study this summer by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. It found that hands-free devices cognitively distracted drivers nearly as much as hand-held devices. Even worse, drivers who used a speech-to-text device were three times as distracted.

That evidence clashes with the trend toward more robust and interactive dashboard computer systems. The AAA report said, “The data suggest that a rush to voice-based interactions in the vehicle may have unintended consequences that adversely affect traffic safety. There is strong evidence that drivers are not necessarily safe just because eyes are on the road and hands are on the wheel.”

In other words, fooling with the GPS navigation screen, entertainment systems, climate controls and other onboard information displayed on ever-larger dashboard monitors may cause an accident.

Although 40 states, including ours, have outlawed texting and using a hand-held device, none has prohibited the use of hands-free devices. The Legislature should weigh the merits of leading the nation by taking this obvious next step.

Any legislation banning hands-free devices must include a sizable amount of funding for a public education campaign. The combination of rigorous enforcement and heightened awareness has worked with seat belts. It can also work to reduce distracted driving.