Friday, September 25, 2009

States send confusing message to drivers

There has been a lot of discussion this year at statehouses and from safety advocates touting the need to make roadways safer. The purpose seems straightforward. But states aren’t sending a clear message about how to accomplish the task.

Massachusetts lawmakers are taking a long look at giving older drivers greater scrutiny when it comes time to get their licenses renewed.

The push for legislation regulating older drivers has intensified in recent months after several wrecks in Massachusetts involving motorists in their 80s and 90s caused injuries and death.

A legislative effort on the move there would require drivers 75 and older to pass an examination that tests their physical and cognitive skills.

Supporters say it is a step in the right direction, but impairment can begin well before age 75. Opponents say it’s unfair to focus solely on older drivers. Others acknowledge that while their response times slow with age, they aren’t the only ones behind the wheel impaired.

It’s a very good point. Anyone who gets behind the wheel for any length of time doesn’t have to look hard to find numbers of people of all ages driving along with some sort of electronic device seemingly affixed to their ear or with a gadget in-hand texting away.

Distracted driving has long been an issue for highway safety advocates. But only as technology has made it easier for people on the go to stay in touch with others have we seen elected officials take aggressive steps to intervene.

Only six states prohibit all drivers from talking on hand-held cell phones, but 21 states have outlawed all cell use for their youngest drivers. And this year, a significant push has been made to cut down on the number of people texting while at the wheel.

New York recently became the 18th state to outlaw the practice of operating a motor vehicle while texting and nine more solely prohibit novice drivers from the practice.

A study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute has already fueled increased interest in additional efforts to put a stop to use of the technology. Researchers found that drivers are more than 23 times as likely to be involved in a crash or near-crash while texting at the wheel.

The findings have energized lawmakers in states that include Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky and Oklahoma to pursue legislation during their 2010 sessions to adopt texting bans. More efforts are anticipated as Congress could get involved.

State officials appear to be so riled up about texting while driving it isn’t farfetched to assume that pretty soon we could see nearly 80 percent of all states with a ban on the practice.

However, the pursuit by states to keep people safe on their roadways is starting to butt heads with efforts to keep them informed. Social networking sites, which continue to grow in popularity, are being used by state transportation officials to get information out about traffic congestion, road conditions or emergencies.

About half of all states now use Web sites such as Twitter and Facebook to get the latest word out to travelers in an effort to make their drives hassle free.

But these states are sending a mixed signal. Take, for example, Arkansas where a ban on texting while driving takes effect Oct. 1. In early September the state’s Highway and Transportation Department started using Twitter to give truckers and others a heads up about highway conditions throughout the state.

“Using Twitter will allow the department another way to deliver information quickly and efficiently,” state Highway Director Dan Flowers said in a statement.

While the messages being sent out in Arkansas and many other states have good intentions, they are in direct conflict with lawmakers working to eliminate the deadly consequences of distracted driving.

So, what should we be focused on to make highways safer? Reducing distracted driving? Making sure highway users have up-to-the-minute road conditions? Making it more difficult for the eldest drivers to stay out on the road?

This much is certain: States cannot be pulling in opposite directions and expect the problem to be resolved. They need to pull in the same direction for a solution to come to fruition.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor