Hearing Examines Distracted Drivers

Tuesday, July 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — You're driving and glance over as another car passes. To your amazement, the man behind the wheel is talking on a cellular phone — while shaving.

This occurred recently on Interstate 95 near Washington. It's an egregious example of what federal authorities say is a growing problem: drivers doing lots of things besides paying attention to the road.

The proliferation of gadgets like cell phones and mapping systems has exacerbated a problem that has existed since people started driving.

``We are experiencing a dramatic change in driver behavior,'' said Rosalyn Millman, deputy administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. ``If we underestimate this potential risk to highway traffic safety and do not moderate drivers' use of in-vehicle systems, the price may be very steep, indeed.''

NHTSA held a public hearing Tuesday to discuss ways to curb driver distractions. Representatives from the government, auto industry, safety organizations, cellular phone makers and others attended.

The participants agreed little information is available to determine how risky certain distractions can be and what activities are most dangerous.

According to the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety, which has organized a campaign encouraging responsible use of new vehicle technologies, distracted drivers cause at least 4,000 accidents a day and perhaps as many as 8,000.

A 1997 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found talking on a phone while driving quadrupled the risk of an accident and was almost as dangerous as being drunk behind the wheel.