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Distracted Drivers Create Significant Jump in Accidents and Injuries

There has been increased attention on the danger of distracted driving recently, specifically on the dangers of cell phone use and texting while driving. Other secondary task involvement includes eating, drinking, conversing with passengers, as well as interaction with in-vehicle technologies (e.g., navigation devices and GPS), as well as portable electronic devices.

Ranger Kidwell-Ross

NHSTA Masthead

Today's various emerging and available technologies and devices clearly present greater physical and mental challenges than what has come before. These are added to the less obvious forms of cognitive distractions, such as sleepiness, daydreaming or dealing with strong emotions, all of which also present potentially dangerous situations for sweeper operators and other drivers.

Studies to date make it clear that distraction from the primary task of driving very likely presents a serious and potentially deadly danger. In 2008, 5,870 people lost their lives and an estimated 515,000 people were injured in police-reported crashes in which at least one form of driver distraction was reported on the crash report. While these numbers are significant, they may not approach the true size of the problem, since the identification of distraction and its role in the crash by law enforcement can be very difficult.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been researching driver distraction with respect to both behavioral and vehicle safety countermeasures in an effort to understand and mitigate crashes associated with driver distraction. In development of these countermeasures, the following data provide some perspective into the size of the problem of driver distraction:

  • Driver distraction was reported to have been involved in 16-percent of all fatal crashes in 2008 according to data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS).

  • An estimated 21-percent of injury crashes were reported to have involved distracted driving, according to data from the General Estimates System (GES).

  • Based on data from the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey (NMVCCS), a nationally-representative survey of the crashes in which the critical reason for the crash was attributed to the driver, approximately 18-percent involved distraction.

Measuring driver distraction in the field is difficult and potentially imprecise because of self-reporting and timing of data collection. Due to differences in methods used to define distraction, differing studies and surveys conducted may arrive at different results and conclusions with respect to the involvement of driver distraction during a crash.

For those who would like the complete story, we offer as a download link PDF file NHTSA's research paper, Driver Distraction: A Review of the Current State-of-Knowledge. The paper discusses in great detail multiple means of measuring the effects of driver distraction. These include observational studies, crash-based studies, and experimental studies of driving performance. You will find this to cover the topic in excruciating depth. And, you will learn that each type of study has its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

The upshot of it all seems to be that recent data from NHTSA and other DOT modes pertaining to distracted-driving crashes all agree that driving distracted is a problem on the rise. Today, operators have access to a host of distraction avenues not available even a year or so ago. Cell phones may be used for texting, as cameras, as navigational devices and, with iPhones, with 10,000 other applications. If that's not bad enough, some of your operators may even be using them to talk on the phone as they drive!

Add to that the work-related equipment in a typical sweeper cab. Sophisticated gauges, GPS systems, work cell phones, routing devices and more mean that an operator's eyes on the road and awareness on the job can both become secondary.

In light of the above data, it's easy to recognize that distracted driving is an increasing problem. The evidence for developing a policy to cover exactly what operators may and may not do while driving is compelling. Why wait for an accident to develop your organization's policy on this issue?

Ranger Kidwell-Ross is a graduate economist, business consultant, award-winning author and editor of

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