WASHINGTON -- Drivers focusing on newspapers, makeup, snacks, cell phones or other diversions that prevent concentrating on the road cause at least 4,000 accidents a day and perhaps as many as 8,000, organizers of a new safety campaign said Tuesday.
The Network of Employers for Traffic Safety, comprising government and corporate members interested in preventing traffic accidents, estimates that as many as half of all crashes are caused by drivers paying attention to something other than operating their vehicles.
''If we're eating, reading, writing or talking while behind the wheel, who's driving?'' said Kathy Lusby-Treber, executive director of NETS.
According to a telephone survey of 1,026 drivers released by the group, only 15 percent said they don't regularly talk to passengers while driving, or adjust radio or climate controls, eat, read, pick up items from the vehicle floor, use the phone.
Respondents to the survey, conducted June 16-19 by Wirthlin Worldwide with a margin of error of 3 percentage points, considered distracted driving the fourth most serious detriment to safe driving, behind drunken driving, aggressive driving and speeding.
''Every day when I'm on patrol I see countless examples,'' Trooper Eric Radwick of the Virginia State Police said at a news conference to announce the educational campaign.
''Cars have become mobile offices and mobile living rooms.''
In a high-profile case last year, novelist Stephen King suffered multiple broken bones and a collapsed lung when he was struck by a van while walking near his vacation home in Maine. The driver, Bryan Smith, said he was trying to keep his dog from getting into a cooler in the back when he swerved onto the road shoulder and struck King.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also is taking a look at what devices are being used on the road and strategies to reduce distraction. It will take electronic comments from July 5 to Aug. 11 at www.driverdistraction.org and will hold a public meeting on July 18.
Rosalyn Millman, NHTSA deputy administrator, said consequences of driver distraction range from economic loss to matters of life and death.
''Anything that distracts the driver from his or her primary task is something that concerns us,'' Millman said.
''Manufacturers and vendors have a responsibility to assess and understand the hazards posed by any device that they install or recommend for use by the driver -- before they are offered to their customers,'' she said.
Mark Edwards of AAA, a component of NETS, said studies show it is not always a device that provides distraction. He said when people think about something other than driving, such as what's for dinner, they aren't watching the road.
''You're visualizing that steak dinner or that tossed salad,'' he said. ''It's not the device, it's that the driver is being intellectually occupied by some activity.''
The key to reducing accidents is to make drivers aware of their distraction, Edwards said.
''I don't think we're going to ban eating and drinking and passengers,'' he said. ''What does make sense is training people to recognize when they are distracted.''
On the Net:
Network of Employers for Traffic Safety: http://www.trafficsafety.org
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