THE BLOG

The Line Between Convenience and Distraction

11/21/2013 11:10 am ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

Recently, The Arizona Republic revealed new details of a terrible 18-wheeler crash in May that killed an Arizona Department of Public Safety officer: the truck driver, who faces 20 felony charges including second-degree murder, was using his cell phone to look as risqué photos when he slammed into several vehicles. As ridiculous as it sounds, this driver was so distracted by provocative pictures on his phone, he told police he never saw the multiple DPS and fire department vehicles on the roadway, or an officer frantically waving his arms trying to get his attention before he jumped out of the way. While the NTSB is not investigating this specific crash, it does highlight the deadly consequences of distraction while driving, something that has been the focus of many previous NTSB crash investigations.

For example, in the early morning hours of March 26, 2010, a van carrying 12 people bound for a wedding in Iowa was traveling northbound on I-65 when a tractor-trailer crossed the highway median and collided with it nearly head-on. Ten people in the van and the truck driver were killed, making it the worst crash in Kentucky in more than two decades. The NTSB found that the truck driver had lost control of his vehicle after becoming distracted by the use of his cell phone. While it could not be determined whether the driver was holding his phone or using it in a hands-free mode, numerous studies have shown that the crash risk between hand-held and hands-free conversations is almost identical. One such study, conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, rated the use of hands-free and hand-held cell phones as almost equal sources of cognitive distraction and found "significant impairments to driving from the diversion of attention."

Clearly, it is not enough that a driver have his hands on the wheel and eyes on the road; he must also have his head in the game. That's why since 2009, NTSB staff have been prohibited from using any portable electronic devices while driving for work. That's also why in 2011 the NTSB issued a recommendation that all drivers put away their devices, whether hand-held or hands-free, while driving.

We did not come to this recommendation lightly. Our first distracted driving crash investigation occurred in 2002, from which we recommended a cell phone restriction for novice drivers. Many parents and state legislators agreed that preventing distraction among teen drivers made sense. We completed an investigation involving a distracted commercial truck driver and recommended a ban for all commercial drivers' license holders. The general public thought this, too, made perfect sense; they didn't want drivers of 80,000-pound-vehicles or their kids school buses distracted. However, when we issued our recommendation for a ban on the use of portable electronic devices for all drivers, we heard an outcry among some citizens. It seems people have a difficult time accepting that their distraction is also part of the problem, especially when they are using hands-free devices.

Many drivers think that as long as your eyes aren't off the road you'll be fine. That is simply not true. Studies have shown that even using a hands-free cell phone while driving distracts you from the road. It's called cognitive distraction, and it means that you're looking at the road but not actually seeing. You're on autopilot, but not in a good way.

Sadly, the threat of distraction is not limited to motor vehicle operators. This past April, we completed a report on a helicopter emergency medical services flight that ended in tragedy when the helicopter ran out of fuel. Contributing to the accident was the pilot's distracted attention due to personal texting while preparing for the flight. Previously, we investigated a case where a tugboat mate failed to maintain a proper lookout due in part to his repeated personal use of his cell phone and company laptop; the tugboat and barge it was towing collided with another vessel, killing two people. Then there was the collision of two trains near Chatsworth, California that resulted in 25 deaths, more than 100 injured, and estimated damages in excess of $12 million, all because an engineer engaged in the prohibited use of a wireless device. Three different transportation modes, three different accident circumstances, but one common element -- the interface of man with machine to the point that the human operator was distracted from the primary task.

So what has the NTSB learned about how to effectively address the problem of distracted driving? Like so many successful changes in highway safety such as increased seat belt use, child restraints and reducing drunk driving -- it will take effective legislative action, strong law enforcement, and solid education. Perhaps most importantly, we also must change the culture of "talk or text first and focus on driving later." That is a culture that fails to recognize how distraction could take your life, the life of a loved one or a stranger. After all, no call, no text, no update is ever worth a human life.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Harvard School of Public Health in an effort to call more attention to the dangers of texting while driving. Distracted driving is the cause of 350,000 crashes per year, and the series will be putting a spotlight on efforts being made to combat the crisis by the public and private sectors and the academic and nonprofit worlds. In addition to original reporting on the subject, we'll feature at least one post a day every weekday in November. To see all the posts in the series, click here; for more information on the national effort, click here.

And if you'd like to share your story or observation, please send us your 500-850-word post to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com.