Combatting distracted driving to save lives was the focus of an expert panel at the “Eyes on the Road: Vehicles and Vision Zero” session at the recent Summer MACo Conference held on Ocean City.
The panel was moderated by Prince George’s County Council Member Monique Anderson-Walker, a passionate advocate for improving road safety and founder of the #DrivingItHome campaign. #DrivingItHome is a community partnership that focuses on raising awareness for safe driving by stressing six areas that are crucial to roadway, pedestrian, and bicyclist safety: seatbelt use, texting and driving, distracted driving, drunk driving, highway speed, and aggressive driving.
Ragina Ali, Public and Government Affairs Manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic reviewed national and state data on distracted driving accidents and fatalities, which drove home how serious the issue is. Distracted driving also greatly impacts local governments, as it places their highway workers and emergency responders at greater danger as they perform their duties. Ragina discussed how cultural shifts have changed our understanding of what is safe driving over time and the need for a cultural shift to consider distracted driving as dangerous as other behaviors like driving under the influence. She reviewed several of AAA’s public education and policy campaigns aimed at reducing distracted driving.
“Drivers are intexticated. Distracted driving is the new drunk driving. Two seconds of taking your eyes off the road doubles your chances of being in an accident,” Ali.
Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration Administrator Chrissy Nizer shared with the audience State efforts to combat distracted driving. Surprisingly, even though there were lower road miles traveled in 2020 in Maryland due to the pandemic, there was not a corresponding drop in fatalities. Those who were on the roads were engaged in riskier behavior, leading to an increase in fatal crashes. Maryland has an official Vision Zero policy that aims to eliminate all traffic fatalities. Chrissy emphasized that there is not one solution for achieving Vision Zero. Instead it requires multiple approaches from public education, to roadway design, to enforcement. Data shows that 93% of crashes are due to human behavior, which underlines the need for strong education and enforcement efforts.
Mark Etzbach, Vice President of Sales North America for Acusensus provided a video demonstration of his company’s new technology, which allows law enforcement to more easily identify distracted driving behavior using a portable overhead camera system. The company was started when the founder’s best friend was struck and killed by a distracted driver. Behavior like texting while driving is often very difficult to catch, but the Acusensus technology provides a photo of the interior of the car through the windshield, which is then transferred to a law enforcement officer waiting down the road. Acusensus has successfully deployed their technology with great results in Australia, where their founder is from, and is working with state highway offices around the US to test the technology here.
Finally, Capt. Jim Brown of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office discussed more traditional enforcement methods that are a key part of combatting distracted driving. Montgomery County has had a strong focus on Vision Zero for several years. They have implemented measures like narrowing travel lanes from 12 to 10 feet in areas with a high number of speed related crashes and have found that this simple measure has greatly reduced speeding. The MCSO has also implemented “Focus on the Five,” which is based on a San Francisco model and focuses enforcement around the top five collision causes: driving at unsafe speed given roadway conditions, running a red light, failure to yield to pedestrian in a crosswalk, failure to yield while making a left or U-turn, and failure to stop at a stop sign limit line. Capt. Brown also emphasized the importance of public education campaigns, especially those aimed at teens, such as the Every 15 Minutes program.
More about MACo’s Summer Conference: