Chairman Rockefeller's Remarks on Combating Distracted Driving: Managing Behavioral and Technological Risks

October 28, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C.—At this very moment, 11 percent of all drivers on the road are holding an electronic device:

They are calling home on their cell phone or reading a text from a friend; they are sending an email to the office on their Blackberry or looking up directions with a GPS system.

That amounts to 812,000 distracted drivers at any given moment. 812,000 drivers focused on something other than the road. 812,000 drivers putting their own lives, their passengers’ lives — and the lives of everyone else on the road at risk.

In September 2008, 13-year-old Margay Schee of Marion County, Florida was riding home on the school bus.

A truck driver, who by his own admission was distracted by his cell phone, slammed into the back of the bus, stopped with its flashers on.  The bus caught fire and Margay was killed.

Her terrible story is just one of thousands. Last year, distracted drivers killed 5,800 people and injured 515,000. Deaths like Margay’s are absolutely devastating — and absolutely preventable.  

We define distracted driving broadly — reaching for an object or eating while behind the wheel. But cell phone use and texting, in particular, have increased dramatically in recent years, and so have the number of accidents they cause.

Commercial motor vehicle operators who are texting are 23 times more likely to cause a crash, or near-crash.  

Texting takes your eyes off the road — long enough at high speeds to travel the length of a football field.  

Cars and trucks with a distracted driver are deadly weapons and we have a responsibility to get them off the road. Several states already have taken action. But not enough states have done the right thing.  

So, with Senators Hutchison, Lautenberg, Schumer, Thune, Klobuchar and Vitter, I have introduced the “Distracted Driving Prevention Act of 2009,” a comprehensive plan to reduce dangerous texting and cell phone use on the road.

The centerpiece of this legislation is a grant program for states that enact laws to prohibit texting and hand-held cell phone use while driving.  

To qualify, a state would have to enact an absolute ban on texting while driving, carrying significant penalties for any driver who causes an accident. No exceptions.
States also would have to limit cell phone use to devices with hands-free capabilities. But no driver under 18 could use a cell phone at all while still gaining experience on the road.

To truly make our roads safer, we need to think bigger, more comprehensive.

And so this legislation models a new national education campaign based on the tremendous success of the drunk driving and seat belt advertising campaigns.  

And we can do it all without raising our deficit one cent:  

The new grant program and advertising campaign would be paid for by redirecting unused surpluses from the current seat belt safety program.  So: no new costs.

We should not have to mourn the tragic loss of any more precious lives needlessly cut short. It is time to bring a new sense of safety and shared responsibility to our roads.