In March 2000, Pennsylvania's Senate heard testimony to better inform itself about distracted driving and determine whether to develop responsive safety rules. Following this hearing, Pennsylvania's General Assembly adopted the resolution directing the present study by Joint State Government Commission. The General Assembly recognizes the many opportunities for driver distractions while operating a motor vehicle and its responsibility to ensure traffic safety by enacting enforceable laws.
Its concurrent resolution directs the Commission to:
- Study and develop recommendations concerning highway safety and driver distractions including technology, entertainment and all other forms of nontechnological distractions.
- Review and analyze studies and statistics relating to all types of driver distractions, which affect safety.
- Inquire into innovative communications technologies being used or proposed to be used in motor vehicles that may alleviate risks to safety.
- Recommend strategies and legislative or regulatory action.
According to our Commonwealth's Department of Transportation, 3.5 percent of the crashes reported to police throughout Pennsylvania during 1999 and 2000 are at least partially attributed to distractions. Of all distractions identified as primarily or contributorily causing a crash in Pennsylvania during 1999 and 2000, cell phones represented 5.2 percent of those distractions and 0.4 percent of all crashes. This percentage is nearly the same as other commonly acceptable distractions that were also identified as causes of crashes, namely consuming food and beverages and smoking. In Pennsylvania and nationally, an outside object person or event is most often the distraction that at least partially contributed to causing a crash.
Crash statistics from Pennsylvania during 1999 and 2000 show that other occupants caused approximately twice as many distractions leading to crashes as cell phones. A ban of wireless conversations does not seem promising when personal conversations with other occupants would presumably remain unabated.
It is evident that driver distraction is underreported, by how much is unknown. Part of the challenge in addressing driver distractions that adversely affect traffic safety is a lack of reliable data necessary to accurately assess the actual magnitude of this hazard. From the data that have been collected, crash statistics per se do not justify statutorily restricting specific driver distractions. It is evident that the great threat posed by driver distractions is from the aggregate of those distractions.
A corrective policy has the best chance to succeed if it is based upon reliable data and reasonable assumptions and then tested for efficacy. Continued, careful study of driver distractions might best assure that any statutory or regulatory response be widely supported, actually increase safety, avoid a perverse result and allow innovative technology to continue to concurrently improve mobility and safety. The finite resources dedicated to traffic safety will best be allocated if they are effectively rather than easily expended.
SUMMARY OF RECOMMENDATIONS
1. A statutory or regulatory restriction on specific driver distractions does not yet appear to be warranted based upon available data. Should future data demonstrate the necessity of a restriction, its application and enforcement should be uniform statewide.
2. To contribute to consistent collection of reliable crash data nationally, Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation should adopt the voluntary criteria known as Model Minimum Uniform Crash Criteria, which are expected to be revised next year.
3. Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation should routinely collect and annually publish data specifying distractions that contributed to motor vehicle crashes in our Commonwealth. A corrective policy has the best chance to succeed if it is based upon reliable data to best assure that any regulatory response actually increases safety.
4. The public and private sectors should continue to increase drivers' awareness of distractions through training, educational materials and publicity designed to emphasize the importance of suitably attentive driving.
5. While the public and private sectors must encourage and require safe driving, there is no substitute for a suitably attentive and cautious driver. Ultimately, motorists are individually responsible to carefully attend to their primary task, driving.