By LARRY COPELAND
The national campaign against distracted driving has focused on texting while driving and limiting the use of hand-held gadgets by drivers. But the nation's highway safety community has paid relatively little attention to the many other forms of distracted driving.
People love to eat in their cars. They can't resist fiddling with the CD player or the radio, chatting with passengers, patting their pets or turning around to get after the kids in the back seat while hurtling down the interstate.
"I don't think we've made nearly as much progress in those other areas of distracted driving," says Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
The Highway Loss Data Institute, the research arm of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says distracted driving is more than just cellphone use and that laws deal with only part of the problem.
Distracted driving is so pervasive across the USA that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last week convened a second national summit on the issue.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says just a fraction of the 5,474 people killed and 448,000 injured in crashes involving distracted driving last year involved cellphones: 18 percent of the fatalities and 5 percent of the injuries. That means that most distracted driving crashes involved some other behavior:
A police officer in Pierre, S.D., seized 15 cats from a woman who nearly backed into his car. The officer saw that the "view out of the back window of the other car was obstructed by numerous cats climbing on the seat backs and rear dashboard inside the vehicle," according to a ruling in June by the South Dakota state Supreme Court on the Aug. 13, 2009, incident.
Lora Hunt, 49, of Morris, Ill., was painting her fingernails on May 2, 2009, when she smashed into and killed motorcyclist Anita Zaffke, 56. Hunt was convicted of felony reckless homicide and sentenced in July to spend her nights in jail for 18 months. Hunt, who testified that she had quit applying nail polish and put the bottle down before the collision occurred, is allowed to leave jail during the day for work, counseling and community service.
Stu Wright, a radio personality in Orangeburg, S.C., saw another driver eating what appeared to be a full meal with a fork out of a Styrofoam plate while driving full speed. "It looked like one of those meat-and-three (vegetables) meals," says Wright, 57. "Just as you think you've seen it all, you see something else."
Lee Luckabaugh of Harrisburg, Pa., says he was driving through North Carolina on Interstate 95 when he saw a driver swerving in and out of three lanes. "As I passed the driver of this rather large SUV, I looked over at him and saw that his dome light was on, his textbook was neatly propped up on his steering wheel and his cellphone was awkwardly positioned in the crook of his neck," Luckabaugh says. "He was reading, talking and driving 70 mph."
Haylee Bartelson, 22, of La Crosse, Wis., was headed home from college on Interstate 90 in Minnesota when she passed a man on a large motorcycle. "I looked over and noticed that he was texting while driving his motorcycle," she says. "Neither of his hands were on the handles. Instead he had his phone in his hands and was driving with both elbows. To make matters even worse, he was traveling about 65 mph up a very lengthy hill with no helmet on."
The nation's vehicles and highway systems are so well-designed they've helped create complacency among many drivers, says Kissinger, whose organization and auto club AAA launched Heads Up Driving Week on Sunday, urging drivers to keep their eyes on the road.
"In some sense we've made things too safe, and people get lulled into this sense of complacency," he says. "The system is fundamentally so safe that most of the time when people do these things they get away with them."
Greg Zaffke, whose mother was killed by the woman painting her nails, founded the non-profit Black Nail Brigade foundation to spread awareness about other forms of distracted driving.
"The attention is 99.9 percent on cellphones and texting and very, very little has been done about the non-technological distractions," says Zaffke, 32. "There's a lot more out there than cellphones and texting."
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