Distracted driving is a proven hazard, but how to stop it is a question many experts and government still are trying to answer.
In 2009, driving while texting, using a cell phone or simply not paying attention to the road caused almost 5,500 deaths and nearly 450,000 injuries in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
While some companies have developed technologies they say allow those behind the wheel to focus on driving while using digital devices, many experts note drivers' behavior must change to lower distracted driver accidents. At the 2010 Distracted Driving Summit the Transportation Department held on Sept. 21, Secretary Ray LaHood said in a prepared statement that drivers have changed their behaviors in the past. "For instance, we've told Americans to click it, or get a ticket," he said. "And we've seen seat belt use increase to 85 percent, up from 60 percent only 15 years ago."
Although 38 states and territories have a law that prohibits using cell phones while driving, statutes are not the answer, said Matt Howard, founder and chief executive officer of ZoomSafer, which sells software that enables hands-free use of mobile devices.
But laws prohibiting the use of cell phones did not affect the rates of insurance claims that drivers filed, said Anne Fleming, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit group funded by insurance companies. "Drivers are willing to be distracted ... [and] they find other distractions," she said.
Safety experts said drivers' mind-sets must change if accidents are to be avoided. "Everybody is just waking up to this issue that you have to balance a person's behavior that relates to a mobile device while driving," Howard said.
He added the U.S. auto industry is "hell-bent" on turning an automobile into a browser, noting some manufacturers now let drivers to pay bills while driving. Drivers also can update their Facebook status or post a Tweet on Twitter.
Some in-car applications can be conducted using voice recognition. But manufacturers mostly focus on commonly used features such as changing a radio station, said Richard Mack, spokesman for Burlington, Mass.-based Nuance, which makes voice-activation systems for automobiles. "By putting a voice interface [on] them . . . it can reduce the distraction."
Mack said the evolution of voice technology for applications in cars is similar to that of airbags. "Twenty to 30 years ago, [airbags] started in higher end-vehicles and very quickly it migrated down to the most widely sold vehicles out there," he said.
Yet, in his opening remarks, LaHood disagreed voice-activated features could solve distracted driving. "Facts are facts," he said. "Features that pull drivers' hands, eyes and attention away from the road are distractions. Period. Together, let's put safety before entertainment."
LaHood said enforcement and campaigns to curb distracted driving should be instituted. For example, the Transportation Department launched pilot programs in Hartford, Conn., and Syracuse, N.Y., to determine if increased law enforcement efforts combined with public service announcements could convince drivers to not use their cell phones and focus on the road.
Based on observations and surveys, handheld cell phone use in cars dropped 56 percent in Hartford and 38 percent in Syracuse, and texting while driving fell 68 percent in Hartford and 42 percent in Syracuse, according to Transportation.