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Laws, education not enough to curb distracted driving

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Admit it or not, most of us are guilty of having fiddled with a cell phone while behind the wheel.

As West Virginia and other states take measures to keep drivers from texting and talking while driving, a new report from researchers at the West Virginia University School of Public Health asserts the laws probably aren't making much impact on the number of injuries caused by distracted driving.

"Keeping an Eye on Distracted Driving," appears in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), released online March 6. The paper was co-authored by Jeffrey H. Coben, interim dean of the WVU School of Public Health, and Motao Zhu. Both study public health and safety topics through WVU's Injury Control Research Center.

Drs. Coben and Zhu note that, in 2003, cell phone use while driving was estimated to cause more than 300,000 injuries annually, including 2,600 fatalities. The numbers increased 22 percent from 2005 to 2009.

The problem is expected to worsen in coming years, despite efforts to curtail distracted driving.
"Young drivers are at greatest risk, both because they use cell phones more than older drivers, and because they are inexperienced behind the wheel," Coben said. "I see this problem only getting worse unless more is done to prevent it."
Zhu agrees.

"I think the problem will be getting worse before starting to level off, since many young drivers have grown up with mobile devices and texting is very popular among them," Zhu said. "Still, I do believe there will be a point where these numbers will level off. It will take long-term and concerted efforts, as have been employed with encouraging seat belt use and discouraging drunk driving."

West Virginia is one of 39 states that have banned text messaging by all drivers, while talking on a handheld device behind the wheel has been outlawed in 10 states, plus the District of Columbia. A number of public awareness campaigns have been implemented by insurance companies, safety advocacy groups, transportation agencies and public health groups. Still, these efforts don't seem to be enough to make an impact on behaviors.

Improvements in technology may be the best answer, said Coben.

"Solving this problem will require new approaches," he said. "My hope is that ten years from now, there will be systems built into all automobiles that disable all hand-held devices when the car is in motion, allow only hands-free phone usage and convert incoming text messages to voice and outgoing voice commands to text using hands-free voice recognition technology."

Though all these technological innovations are possible, Coben and Zhu strongly believe the federal government should take greater action, including setting new safety standards requiring the development and implementation of this technology. Their shared opinion is that combining new technology with improved safety standards has the potential to save lives, and that failure to act will result in the continued loss of thousands of lives each year to distracted driving-related crashes.

To read the JAMA article in its entirety, visit: http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1660390.

To hear an interview with Dr. Jeffrey Coben, download the podcast at: http://audio.jamanetwork.com/jamaauthorinterviews/JAMA_2013-03-05_Vol._309_No._9_Author_Interview.mp3