Happy holiday. It's really great to still have you around, because you are not (so far, at least) among the almost 400 people in the U.S. who the National Safety Council predicts will be killed in traffic accidents during the Memorial Day weekend.
Yes, it's a jarring way to allude to the fragility of life, as families gather for picnics and to honor the memories of fallen soldiers. But the weekend's death-toll statistic is eclipsed by the estimated 35,000 roadway fatalities last year nationwide, based on still-preliminary government data.
And drivers and their passengers are heading into an especially dangerous period. Memorial Day leads into the three deadliest months of the year for teenage drivers.
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In 2012, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, almost 1,000 people — including more than 550 teens — were killed in road accidents involving teenage drivers, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Talking on cellphones or texting was a factor in many of those accidents, although precise numbers are elusive because survivors are reluctant to report such behavior and law enforcement agencies typically do not conduct the forensic analysis needed, including subpoenaing phone records, to make a determination, experts say.
In her new job leading the National Safety Council, Deborah Hersman has set a goal to help save lives by clearing up some of the misconceptions and double standards that drivers — especially the parents of teenage drivers — harbor about the safety impact of distracted driving.
"When you think about how people are killed and die in unintended ways, I think most people don't understand the right things," said Hersman, president and chief executive officer of the council, based in suburban Itasca. "We've got to do a better job of raising the safety bar in all parts of our life."
Hersman, 44, the mother of three young boys, comes at the issue from a uniquely qualified perspective. For the past 10 years she was a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, including serving as NTSB chairman for about half that time. She participated in more than 25 accident investigations, from airliner crashes to vehicle accidents that represented patterns where lives could be saved through intervention.
"It's really interesting, I've always found, when I talk to people about what they expect of their airline pilots or their kids' school bus drivers or a locomotive engineer driving a train, there are very clear expectations that these people need to be focused on the task at hand," Hersman said during an interview last week at her National Safety Council office.
"Nobody is comfortable when I tell them that (on the NTSB) we investigated incidents where pilots were so distracted that they overflew their destinations by 100 miles because they were on their laptops, and they didn't realize the autopilot had overflown Minneapolis until the flight attendant rang them up and said, 'Should we be preparing the cabin for arrival?' But somehow people don't hold the mirror up and kind of have that same kind of judgment about themselves behind the wheel. But that's where 95 percent of our transportation fatalities occur — on the roads."
Hersman said a solid step toward reducing distracted driving would be for more parents to set the correct example for their teenage drivers. Teens are involved in crashes at three times the rate of more experienced drivers, according to accident data.
And before handing over the keys to their children, parents need to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward talking on cellphones or using any electronic devices — even though no state currently goes further than hands-free restrictions, Hersman said. The safety council supports a complete ban on using hand-held or hands-free electronic devices while driving.
Parents who buy their teenage drivers hands-free devices, such as headsets or Bluetooth, are missing the point, she argued. It's not the fact that the driver is holding a phone that is cognitively distracting, but rather the conversation itself that interferes with the focus on driving, research shows.
"Those parents who buy a Bluetooth for their kids are probably the same parents who are using Bluetooth and thinking it's OK," Hersman said. "One of the biggest factors with respect to your kids and their driving is the driving behavior that you model. It's whether you wear a seat belt, it's whether you tolerate impairment or distraction or fatigue while driving. They see that, and it becomes their norm and their set point.
"If parents are talking on the phone, if parents are checking their messages, that's kind of the license for the kids to do the same thing. We all have adopted a culture of deviance when it comes to not paying attention behind the wheel. It's not just the teen drivers, it starts with the parents."
The National Safety Council is a 101-year-old nonprofit organization chartered by Congress and assigned the mission to prevent injuries and deaths at work, in homes and communities and on the road through research, education and advocacy.
There are some signs that public opinion is solidifying on the need for stronger enforcement of laws against texting while driving, according to a new safety council survey that has not been published yet but was provided to the Tribune.
The survey found that 73 percent of respondents thought there should be more enforcement of texting laws, while only 22 percent said the current level of enforcement is adequate.
Fifty-two percent of those polled said penalties for texting while driving should include a point system that could lead to the loss of a driver's license or increased insurance costs, and half also backed large fines for violating texting laws.
Safety council officials concluded that drivers also need to be made more aware of existing cellphone laws in their state. In the poll, 54 percent of the respondents said either that their state does not have a ban on cellphone use while driving or they were not aware of any law.
Almost all states, including Illinois, where hands-free devices are required, have some type of restrictions on cellphone use while driving. Illinois and 41 other states plus the District of Columbia ban texting for all drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
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