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Safety FAQs

1. How is driver distraction defined?
2. What's the number one cause of driver distraction?
3. What percentage of accidents each year is linked to driver distractions?
4. What's currently happening in regards to driver distraction legislation?
5. What about cell phones?
6. What about locally? What are municipalities doing to govern driver distraction?
7. Is there any federal legislation governing driver distraction?
8. What are the legal liabilities surrounding driver distraction?
9. What about criminal actions against distracted drivers?
10. What does the future hold for driver distraction?

1. How is driver distraction defined?
The International Standards Organization defines distraction as "attention given to a non-driving-related activity, typically to the detriment of driving performance." Something as simple as talking to a passenger can be considered a distraction. This is why it's important to learn how and when to safely operate in-car electronics while operating a vehicle.

2. What's the number one cause of driver distraction?
While a recent National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA)-Virginia Tech study indicates that wireless communications are a top distraction, many common activities are frequently associated with distraction-related accidents. In a controlled study conducted by NHTSA, comparing eating and operating a voice-activated cell phone to continuously operating a CD player, it was found that the CD player operation was more distracting than the other activities. The results showed that manual dialing of a cell phone was about as distracting as grooming/eating, but less distracting than reading or changing CDs. It is also important to keep in mind that activities carried out more frequently and for longer periods of time may result in greater risk.

3. What percentage of accidents each year is linked to driver distractions?
Each year, approximately 40,000 people are killed and more than two million are injured in more than six million motor vehicle crashes on the nation's roads. A recent Virginia Tech study found that driver inattention causes approximately 80 percent of all crashes. Because of this, every state since 1999 has considered legislation related to driver distraction.

The focus has mainly centered on cell phones because these types of distractions are the most visible. Other potential distractions -- such as eating and drinking, personal grooming, or using a CD player -- often are not as easy to spot and can occur over a much shorter time period, making them less likely to draw the ire of other motorists, including state legislators and their constituents.

4. What's currently happening in regards to driver distraction legislation?
More than 20 states currently restrict the use of cell phones while driving, and nearly every state considered distracted driving legislation in their 2009 legislative session. But again, the legislation passed covers a wide range of behaviors. The ordinance passed in the District of Columbia, for example, restricts several potential distracting behaviors, such as reading, writing, personal grooming, interacting with pets or unsecured cargo, using personal communications technologies, or engaging in other activities that cause distraction.

5. What about cell phones?
No jurisdiction completely bans the use of cell phones while driving, and only six states require hands-free usage. The vast majority of driver distraction bills considered by state legislatures since 2000 would not prohibit all wireless technologies for drivers. Instead, legislation has covered a range of issues, including prohibition of specific wireless technologies by specific types of drivers.

6. What about locally? What are municipalities doing to deter distracted driving?
Many counties, cities, towns and municipalities across the United States have considered restrictions on cell phone use while driving. The largest and most recent local jurisdiction to restrict cell phone use, Chicago, IL, prohibits motorists from using hand-held phones while driving. More than two dozen local communities -- in Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Utah -- have enacted similar restrictions. Although these communities passed cell phone restrictions, it is important to note that many aren't currently enforcing the laws.

7. Is there any federal legislation governing driver distraction?
So far the federal government has not passed a distracted driving law. In 2003, New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine proposed legislation to prohibit driver use of handheld phones. The bill, SB 179, would have required states to enact handheld phone laws or risk losing five percent of federal transportation funding in the first year of violation, 10 percent of funding for subsequent years in violation. The bill, however, never made it out of committee. In 2009, New York Senator Chuck Schumer introduced a bill to reduce federal funding for state highways to any state that does not prohibit texting while driving. This bill, S. 1536, is currently being considered in the Committee on Environment and Public Works.

8. What are the legal liabilities surrounding driver distraction?
While legislatures debate the merits of restrictions on cell phones and other devices used inside the vehicle, a second battleground has emerged in the courts. Much of it revolves around cell phones. With increasing frequency, legal cases are testing whether drivers -- or, in some cases, the driver's employers -- should be held civilly or criminally responsible for crashes caused by the driver's use of a cell phone. In 2004, for example, a Virginia jury found that a former attorney, who was accused of talking on her cell phone when she struck and killed a teenager, was liable in the teen's death and should pay the victim's family $2 million in damages. The attorney's employer at the time of the crash was also names as a defendant in the lawsuit, but settled with the plaintiff prior to the final verdict.

9. What about criminal actions against distracted drivers?
In 2004, Alaska prosecutors charged a driver with second-degree murder for an accident they say was caused by a DVD player. Prosecutors accused the driver of watching a movie while operating his truck, causing him to swerve across the road and kill two occupants of another vehicle. The driver's truck had been wired with a DVD player and a Sony PlayStation 2, and prosecutors issued murder charges under the theory that the driver knowingly engaged in conduct that showed extreme indifference to human life. The driver, who claimed he had been merely adjusting his CD player at the time of the crash, was acquitted. While additional distracted driving cases have brought criminal charges, none of these cases has been successful.

10. What does the future hold for driver distraction?
State legislatures continue to take the lead in response to driver distraction concerns. Although many things and activities can divert a driver's attention away from the road, the high visibility of cell phones, public opinion, local ordinances and judicial activity have made the cell phone the focus of much state legislative activity. As cell phones and other wireless devices in motor vehicles continue to increase in popularity, state legislatures will be increasingly challenged to examine and react to concerns about the relationship between phones and traffic safety. Driver distraction legislation, however, has expanded well beyond cell phones in cars. More frequently, legislatures are considering proposals that target specific drivers or cover a wider range or potentially distracting activities. Additionally, Senator Schumer has introduced a federal bill that would reduce highway funds to states without "texting while driving" prohibitions, coercing state legislatures to consider additional proposals.