Industry Pulse: NHTSA Administrator optimistic on distracted driving laws’ future impact

Industry Pulse: NHTSA Administrator optimistic on distracted driving laws’ future impact

Editor’s note:  For the third year in a row, I have had the pleasure of interviewing NHTSA Administrator David Strickland following National Distracted Driving Awareness Month. This has become my favorite exclusive interview to conduct. This time, the Administrator and I chatted about how the distracted driving landscape has transformed in four years.

Changing driver behavior takes time

Drivers rarely think about buckling up anymore; it has become second nature for 86 percent of us. The Department of Transportation’s “Click-it or Ticket” campaign launched in the mid-1990s. At that time, just half of all licensed drivers were fastening their seat belts before driving off.

It has taken decades to shift from awareness of the importance of buckling up to actually doing it.

Drunk driving was horrible if someone else did it, but acceptable if you drove home with a bit of a buzz. It seems that’s the same way the general public views distracted driving today.

The same challenge that existed for drunk driving years ago stands today for distracted drivers. The battle against each began stigma-less – it was not important to fasten your seat belt, it didn’t matter if you drove home after having a little too much fun at a friend’s house party, and reading and replying to a work email while driving 65 miles per hour down the highway was no big deal.

“In the early 80’s [drunk driving] wasn’t seen as a crime that kills but as a moment of social impropriety that was dealt with softly,” said David Strickland, Administrator of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Data supporting the dangers of distracted driving is becoming almost ubiquitous as federal agencies and independent groups spearhead countless studies. A stigma is starting to attach itself to this issue, and just four years into the nationwide efforts spearheaded by U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Source: NHTSA Research Notes on Driver Electronic Device Use in 2011; April 2013

More affordable technology leads to higher device usage

NHTSA’s Driver Electronic Device Use in 2011 study showed the percentage of drivers who visibly use hand-held devices or text is on the rise. Despite the disappointing results of the study, Strickland is realistic. He does not expect for mobile device usage to decrease – ever.

“In terms of the uptick in device usage,” he said. “Nothing really surprises me about the data because devices are becoming cheaper and more affordable.”

Don’t let the important title fool you, the Administrator admittedly geeks out over new technologies just like the rest of us. Strickland confessed to waiting in line for the very first Apple iPhone. “The original iPhone was not a broad consumer item; it was very elitist,” Strickland added. “It’s a great thing that technology is now cheaper and democratized.”

Strickland went on to foreshadow the potential impact of the reality that technology today’s toddlers can maneuver gadgets better than their adult counterparts could have on the future of driving:

But the thing that scares me is I have a beautiful fantastic god-daughter. She’s two years old and she uses an iPad better than I do. These children are basically using these devices from birth. They’re going to be using that for 16, 17, 18 years before they get into a car. That’s a challenge.

The second piece is the technological piece. NHTSA recently conducted a naturalistic study of drivers over 30-day period that showed that having a person driving a vehicle and handling a device is dangerous. “The risk is crazy high,” said Strickland. “When people truly use hands-free (not looking at device, not touching the devices) we have seen there’s no safety risk.”

Now, a concern for the agency is looking at the cultural tide of mobile devices. “[We are] clearly focused on teens as being our most dangerous demographic, but it’s not just them – older folks are doing it, too.”

So what’s the solution? Strickland believes that part of the equation is the public creating a new social norm, much like we did for drunk driving, where even passengers refuse to ride with someone who is driving distracted.

Are distracted driving laws the catalyst we need?

When asked about the specific challenges an agency like NHTSA faces in convincing consumers to temper their bad habits, Strickland said the toughest charge is to move that needle from awareness to action.

“Every year we build on what we know,” said Strickland. Getting stronger laws on the books and law enforcement to go out there and take action on them makes all the difference. The NHTSA Administrator elaborated on the progress that his agency, and we as a nation, have made since 2009:

Secretary LaHood brought distraction to the national conscious four years ago. Thinking of how far we’ve come to build the foundation of this campaign, in four years we’ve done a lot at DOT. And LaHood put a lot of energy and effort into it. NHTSA and its partners, auto manufacturers, insurance companies – we all built a campaign from nothing to something that’s now on the national conscience.

Distraction not limited to drivers

Could distracted walkers and bikers be the agency’s next target? Working in downtown Washington, D.C. distraction is clearly not limited to drivers. Pedestrians and bicyclists are falling victim of the addiction to using a handheld device while doing everything.

“We talk about distracted driving a lot here, but NHTSA’s jurisdiction is also on pedestrian safety – distracted walkers and distracted bikers.” Strickland said.


Read my past interviews with NHTSA Administrator Strickland:


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Melanie Batenchuk founded Be Car Chic in 2009 as a way to help consumers make smart decisions when buying and selling their cars. Her prior work at the dealership, trade association and manufacturer levels has provided her a deep understanding of the complex facets within the auto industry, making her a leading woman in her field.