A few months ago, tooling along in my cute new Honda, I came to a stop at a red light. On my right, a police cruiser with lights flashing was investigating a fender bender. A total of three cars, the two that were in the accident plus the police car, were off on the shoulder to the right. I was waiting for the light to change when — bam — someone crashed into me from behind. One of the police officers instructed us to pull over to the side near the other two cars. “Everybody okay?” My husband and I nodded. “I saw the whole thing,” he said “so this won’t take long.”
As we were filling out paperwork and exchanging insurance information (the other driver was mortified and cooperative), yet another car rear-ended a third car waiting at the red light. The road was so strewn with red and white glass that it looked like a holiday display. When my husband and I expressed amazement at the three crashes within the space of about eight minutes, the officer shrugged. “It happens all the time.”
The cause of the second two accidents (I don’t know what caused the first): “distracted driving.” Both drivers were “rubbernecking” instead of paying attention to the road in front of them. By the logic that the National Transportation Safety Board applied this week in its recommendation to ban all cell phone use by drivers, perhaps we should ban police cars?
The accident that led to the NTSB’s sweeping recommendation was similar to the one I just described, except that it was more serious. In Gray Summit, Mo., in 2010, a distracted driver crashed into a truck. Then, in an accordion pattern, two school busses crashed into him. Two people were killed, and 35 injured.
The NTSB investigated and determined that the original crash was due to texting on the part of a distracted driver. As for the school bus drivers, one was found to be rubbernecking, and the other to have neglected “a timely brake application.” Well, yes.
Along with suggestions that Missouri modify its school-bus-inspection regime, the NTSB recommended, to the entire nation, that we “ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices” including hands-free cell phones.
Is there an epidemic of fatal crashes caused by texting and talking on cell phones? NTSB chairman Deborah A. P. Hersman, implied as much. She noted that cell phones and PDAs are ubiquitous. She cited a study suggesting that 21 percent of drivers in the Washington, D.C., area admit to texting while driving, and she stated flatly that 3,000 people lost their lives last year due to texting in the driver’s seat. Is that true? No. In a detailed report on distracted driving issued earlier this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that only 995 deaths resulted from distraction by cell phones in 2010. The 3,000 figure refers to all distracted driving.