Safety First: Deadly Distractions

Texting and similar activities place drivers and those around them in jeopardy.

You do it. Your friends do it. Your teenage children probably do it several times a week. Even your mother does it, once in a while.

No, no that! (Get your mind out of the gutter.) I'm talking about driving a car while distracted. Whether it's talking on the cell phone, adjusting the GPS, or sending or reading a text message, the majority of American motorists drive while they are distracted. I frequently see drivers reading newspapers or putting on makeup while their car is moving.

Some people call this multi-tasking. Others call it a recipe for disaster.

There has been a surge in accidents in which the driver was texting immediately prior to the crash. Several high-profile accidents, including a commuter train crash in California last year in which 25 people were killed, have called national attention to this issue. A recent Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study concluded that those who send text messages while driving are 23 times more likely to be in a crash than those who don't.

About 18 states have passed laws banning the use of texting devices while driving a motor vehicle, though enforcement of these laws is uneven. Legislation has been introduced in Congress that would require states to pass such laws as a condition for receiving federal transportation funds. At the end of September, the United States Department of Transportation held the Distracted Driving Summit in Washington to discuss this growing public safety problem. The summit may lead to additional research, tougher enforcement of existing laws and/or increased local public awareness programs about the risks of driving while distracted.

The solid waste industry is no stranger to this issue. For years, waste collection employees have faced the hazard of motorists potentially crashing into them or their vehicles. The industry concluded that motorists were rushing to get past garbage trucks and developed the Slow Down to Get Around program in response. Although the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), Rumpke and others have been reasonably successful at getting waste collection companies and local governments to be more aware of this hazard and put Slow Down to Get Around signage on their trucks, there has not been a decline in fatal struck-by accidents over the past few years.

Instead, there appears to be an almost weekly incident, somewhere in the United States, in which a motorist crashes into the back of a stopped garbage truck or a helper, often with fatal consequences. Over the summer, two waste collection employees were killed in separate accidents when a motorist struck them behind their trucks. In another struck-by accident, the helper lost both of his legs. In that incident, the police report specifically notes the driver was texting. Texting is suspected in several other recent accidents in which a motorist drove into the back of a garbage truck.

There is no easy solution to this problem. We love technology, and the tough economic climate often demands multi-tasking. However, the safety risks are too high to stay the course. This isn't just a workplace safety issue. This is a national public safety health epidemic.

Perhaps if DWT (driving while texting) becomes as socially unacceptable as DWI (driving while intoxicated), the frequency of these accidents will diminish. Don't be a distracted driver. It puts your life at risk.

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David Biderman is general counsel for the National Solid Wastes Management Association. He oversees the organization's safety programs.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at [email protected].