I got tears in my eyes yesterday when I watched the online video about the 8th-grader who was killed in 2008 when her school bus was crashed into by a truck traveling about 60 mph. The driver said he didn't see the bus.
The teenager was trapped and perished in the flames. It struck close to home, since I have a school-age daughter myself.
Of course, that's the reaction the Department of Transportation is going for with its new "Faces of Distracted Driving"
campaign, featuring online videos about victims of crashes where distracted driving is said to be involved.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood took a page out of the safety advocacy groups' playbook, using a tactic the trucking industry has in the past decried when it was used as part of what was seen as anti-trucker propaganda.
I'm not arguing against the dangers of distracted driving. No one should try to do other tasks that take their hands off the wheel or their eyes off the road while driving, whether it's texting or digging around on the floorboard for that CD or cigarette you dropped. And commercial drivers bear a heavier responsibility.
But exactly how dangerous is talking on a cell phone while driving?
Just the day before LaHood announced his campaign, I was writing a story about a distracted driving study recently released by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.
The study found that texting while driving is "in a risk category all to itself," it was encouraging to learn that the truck and bus drivers in the study rarely engaged in this behavior while driving.
But perhaps most interesting was that this study indicates that simply talking/listening on a cell phone is not associated with a higher risk of safety-related incidents and crashes among commercial drivers.
In fact, the VTTI study actually found talking/listening on a phone is associated with LESS risk if it's a hands-free device. It's the actions drivers have to take to get onto the phone in the first place, such as dialing or reaching for a phone, that seem to be the problem. And those issues could be addressed through better technology. How about a true hands-free system built into the dash, with voice-activated calling?
Looking at these results (which bear out another VTTI distracted study done last year), I have to wonder if the kind of emotional campaign the government is running here could lead to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Making matters worse, using the tragic death of 13-year-old Frances Margay Schee to battle distracted driving is misleading, because it's not clear that "using a cell phone" was truly the cause of the crash. Although news reports at the time said the driver admitted he was on his cell phone at the time of the crash, later reports used the word "near" the time of the crash and indicated that the Florida Highway Patrol hadn't been able to determine whether he was actually on the phone when he ran into the bus.
In fact, court proceedings in May revealed the 2008 Florida crash may have been caused by fatigue just as much as being on the phone, if not more so.
Apparently Reinaldo Andujar Gonzalez had been on the road 36 hours straight, having driven between Jacksonville and the Orlando area twice, according to a report in the Ocala Star-Banner
covering the driver's trial earlier this year.
Prosecutor Phil Hanson "said the crash was an unfortunate result of a driver who was operating on little sleep and had bent down briefly to pick up his dropped cell phone shortly before impact," the paper reported, and admitted that this was "not a slam dunk" case.
Perhaps the push to completely ban the use of cell phones in vehicles isn't so slam-dunk, either.Contributing Editor Evan Lockridge contributed to this story.