The National Transportation Safety Board said today that the nation's driver education courses should include warnings about the dangers of distracted driving, and novice drivers should be prohibited from using cell phones while at the wheel.
These were two of the recommendations contained in the Board's final report on its investigation into a highway crash last year that took the lives of 5 persons, including a driver who was using a wireless phone at the moment she lost control of her vehicle.
On February 1, 2002, at about 8:00 p.m., a Ford Explorer was traveling northbound on Interstate 95/495 (the Capital Beltway) near Largo, Maryland at an estimated speed of 70 to 75 miles an hour when it veered off the left side of the roadway, crossed over the median, climbed a guardrail, flipped over and landed on top of a southbound 2001 Ford Windstar minivan. All 5 persons in the two vehicles were killed.
The Board found that the probable cause of the crash was the Explorer driver's failure to maintain control of her vehicle in the windy conditions due to a combination of inexperience, unfamiliarity with the vehicle (she had just purchased it that evening), speed and distraction caused by use of a handheld wireless telephone.
The Safety Board has long been concerned with the issues of distracted driving and novice drivers. The Board recommended to all States - except New Jersey, which already has a similar proscription - to prohibit holders of learner's permits and intermediate licenses from using interactive wireless communication devices while driving.
"Learning how to drive and getting comfortable in traffic requires all the concentration a novice driver can muster," NTSB Chairman Ellen Engleman said. "Adding a distracting element like a cell phone is placing too many demands on a young driver's skills."
The Board also urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to develop a media campaign stressing the dangers of distracted driving, and that it work with the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association to develop driver training curricula that emphasize the risks of distracted driving. The Board cited a study showing that drivers engaged in phone conversations were unaware of traffic movements around them.
In addition, the Board said that NHTSA should determine the magnitude and impact of driver-controlled, in- vehicle distractions, including the use of interactive wireless communication devices, on highway safety and report its findings to the United States Congress and the States. The NTSB noted that the extent of wireless phone use in car crashes is unknown because most jurisdictions don't have driver distraction codes on their accident report forms. The Board recommended that those 34 States change their forms to add driver distraction codes and include wireless phone use in those codes.
Relating to another issue raised during this investigation, the Board recommended that NHTSA expand its current evaluation of electronic stability control (ESC) systems and determine their potential for assisting drivers in maintaining control of passenger cars, light trucks, sport utility vehicles and vans. Should this evaluation show benefits in ESCs, then NHTSA should develop a schedule to mandate them for these vehicles. The Board noted in today's report that such a device might have helped the driver of the Explorer in the Largo crash maintain control of her vehicle.
The Largo crash once again demonstrated the benefits of seatbelt use. The driver of the Explorer, who was not wearing her seatbelt, was ejected and killed (because of the severity of the impact, seat belt use was not an issue for the four persons in the Windstar). However, during the accident sequence a Jeep Grand Cherokee ran into the wreckage of the minivan; the adult driver and the two children in the back seat were all restrained and escaped with minor injuries.
"The NTSB will continue to be aggressive in pursuit of safety," Chairman Engleman stated. "It is not enough to issue these recommendations, we want to make sure they are implemented."
A summary of today's report, including the findings, probable cause and safety recommendations, can be found on the Publications page of the Board's web site, http://www.ntsb.gov. The complete report will be available there in about six weeks.