Deadly Distractions

TMA Backs Anti-Distracted Driving Bills 

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Public Health Feature – April 2013 

Tex Med. 2013;109(4):37-40.

By Crystal Zuzek 
Associate Editor 

In 2011, distracted driving caused 81,000 vehicle crashes in Texas. Of those, 361 were fatal, according to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). Overall, nearly one in four accidents in Texas involve driver distraction, and teen drivers are more likely than others to be involved in a fatal distracted driving crash.

Those sobering statistics and their personal tragedies compelled families of distracted driving victims to speak at a Texas Capitol press briefing in late January to support legislation that would prohibit texting while driving. Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) and Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland) are sponsoring Senate Bill 28 and House Bill 63, known collectively as the Alex Brown Memorial Act. Numerous state legislators have signed on as coauthors. It is one of several TMA-supported texting and driving bills filed this session.

"I've been involved in the worst days of people's lives more than I want to remember," said Robert Greenberg, MD, a Temple emergency physician who spoke in support of the bills on behalf of the Texas Medical Association.

The act honors 17-year-old Alex Brown, of Lubbock, who died in a crash while texting and driving. It bans text-based communication except when using a GPS device, pressing a button to make a call, or using voice-operated technology. SB 28 exempts texting for emergency situations and by emergency responders.

Dr. Greenberg said too often he must tell families of distracted driving victims that their loved ones will not make it or will survive but with serious brain injuries that will drastically alter their lives. "Tragedies are worse when they are avoidable. Texting while driving is avoidable. We need to pass this legislation," he said.

Jeanne Brown, Alex Brown's mother, tearfully appealed to legislators.

"Having a texting and driving bill doesn't take any of our freedoms away," Ms. Brown said. "I still have the right to text – at the appropriate time, not behind the wheel."

The government sets boundaries on the road to keep people safe, she added. "We have speed limits, we have school zones, and we have seat belts."

Concern for her constituents' safety inspired Senator Zaffirini to file SB 28.

"While there are many forms of distracted driving, perhaps no activity, besides driving under the influence, is recognized as more incompatible with operating a motor vehicle than texting while driving. I am delighted to author SB 28 and work with my House counterpart, Representative Craddick, to pass this important legislation," she said.

She appreciates TMA's support of the Alex Brown Memorial Act, adding the association's members have a credible perspective and care about the well-being of Texans.

"Doctors can effectively articulate the message that texting while driving is a public health issue. It is my hope that Texas doctors and all who support safety on our roadways will not only contact their legislators and ask them to support this bill but also prioritize raising awareness of the dangers of texting while driving. Equally important, they should seek the support of Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and Speaker Joe Straus," Senator Zaffirini said.

Dr. Greenberg says distracted driving is a public safety issue that warrants government regulation.

"I recently saw a gentleman who came to the emergency room after being hit by someone who was texting and driving. The patient said the person who hit him never even slowed down before the impact. He was minimally injured, but not everyone is so lucky. Every ER doctor sees patients who have been in crashes due to distracted driving, and texting is often the culprit," he said.

Legislators Focus on Texting 

In 2011, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) urged all states to ban the use of portable electronic devices while driving, including hand-held and hands-free devices.

Texting while driving concerns several state legislators, who have filed the following bills to ban the practice: 

  • House Bill 27 by Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) bans reading, writing, or sending a text message on a handheld device and establishes fines for offenders.
  • House Bill 41 by Rep. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) prohibits wireless communication use – except hands-free devices – while driving and establishes fines for offenders.
  • House Bill 69 by Rep. Eddie Lucio III (D-Brownsville) outlaws text-based communications while driving.
  • House Bill 108 by Rep. Patricia Harless (R-Spring) has provisions similar to the Alex Brown Memorial Act.  

Patrick Crocker, DO, director of emergency medicine at Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin, calls distracted driving a serious public health concern.

"I think we should regulate distracted driving because actions like texting and driving clearly put drivers at risk. I can't drive down a major highway without seeing drivers on their phones or texting. Personally, I have no doubt everyone on the road would be safer if people didn't text or use portable devices while driving," he said.

Besides saving countless lives, Texas physicians say, new legislation banning texting while driving could save Texas money. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports on- and off-the-job traffic injuries cost Texas businesses $4.3 billion annually in lawsuits, medical bills, property damage, and lost productivity.

TMA policy focuses on the dangers of using hand-held devices while driving. The TMA Council on Science and Public Health presented a report on the broader public safety issue of distracted driving at TexMed 2012. It outlined TMA's support of surveillance, public education, and legislation to improve highway and road safety, and to reduce preventable injuries and deaths. This includes laws on the use of seatbelts and car seats by children, restrictions on driving under the influence, and identification of impaired drivers. It advocates continued study and monitoring of distracted driving, specifically the use of hand-held and hands-free devices by Texans.

The TMA House of Delegates approved its recommendations. The resulting policy says TMA will: 

  • Promote TxDOT's program on distracted driving and encourage the department to adopt national best practice guidance to improve surveillance of distracted driving in Texas to include developing a linkage between TxDOT data on traffic accidents and the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) EMS-Trauma Registry to enable the state to assess distracted driving and its impact on preventable deaths and disability in Texas;
  • Encourage the Texas Legislature to develop appropriate regulatory actions to reduce distracted driving; and
  • Promote physician awareness of distracted driving education campaigns and information resources for patients. 

TMA bases its efforts on a strong awareness of the scope and variety of factors that contribute to the problem of distracted driving. TMA physicians recognize the use of hand-held and hands-free devices and other factors associated with distracted driving affect their patients' safety.  

Drivers Feel the Impact 

Twenty-five Texas cities have banned texting while driving. Thirty-nine states have passed laws restricting the use of mobile communication devices while driving, although restrictions vary among states. No state bans all drivers from using hand-held devices. In 2009, lawmakers filed more than 200 bills in state legislatures on driving and cell phone use.

The Texas Legislature passed a law in 2005 to prohibit new drivers younger than 18 from using hand-held devices while driving. Lawmakers supplemented the law in 2009 by prohibiting the use of mobile devices by bus drivers, as well as driver use of the devices in school crossing zones.

The 2011 legislature banned the use of a hand-held wireless communication device for reading, writing, or sending a text-based communication while operating a motor vehicle unless the vehicle is stopped, but Governor Perry vetoed the legislation. Texas Medicine requested a comment from Governor Perry but hadn't received a statement from him at press time. But in late February, a spokesperson for the governor told the Austin American-Statesman the governor believes texting while driving is "reckless and irresponsible," but that he feels "the key to dissuading drivers from texting while driving is information and education, not government micromanagement."

According to TxDOT, the percentage of drivers texting or visibly manipulating a hand-held device nationally increased from 0.6 percent in 2009 to 0.9 percent in 2010. At the same time, the percentage of motorists holding cell phones to their ears while driving stood at 5 percent in 2010. This means that at any given time of day in 2010, 660,000 drivers used hand-held cell phones.

NHTSA identified distracted driving as a leading factor in motor vehicle accidents and, starting in 2010, focused on hand-held devices in its three-year national plan to reduce distracted driving.

Strategies to address distracted driving focus primarily on reducing the use of electronic communication devices and on increasing local regulation. Public and private agencies and organizations have initiated multiple activities on distracted driving. The U.S. Department of Transportation developed a public awareness campaign on distracted driving – "Put It Down" – to help drivers understand they have a personal responsibility to pay attention while driving. The campaign also encourages legislation and local law enforcement to discourage distracted driving.

Stephen Pont, MD, medical director of the Texas Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Childhood Obesity, says public health awareness campaigns are effective and could prove influential in curtailing distracted driving.

As an example, he cites the "Safe to Sleep" campaign to educate health care professionals, parents, and caregivers on ways to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The campaign began in 1994 and spread the recommendation that healthy babies be placed on their backs to sleep. The National Institute of Child Health & Human Development reports that since the campaign started, the percentage of infants sleeping on their backs has increased dramatically, and overall SIDS rates have declined by more than 50 percent.

"By getting involved in campaigns, physicians can help craft the message and be part of the solution," Dr. Pont said.

Schools also can be instrumental in reducing the prevalence of distracted driving among adolescents, says Dr. Pont, a member of the Austin Independent School District School Health Advisory Council.

"Schools are a great place to get the message out to kids, and they should hear it in other settings, too. Physicians should talk to patients of all ages about the risks associated with texting and driving and other forms of distraction. If distracted driving is an issue dear to a physician, any advocacy group would be happy to have that physician on the team," Dr. Pont said. 

Crystal Zuzek can be reached by telephone at (800) 880-1300, ext. 1385, or (512) 370-1385; by fax at (512) 370-1629; or by email.  


April 2013 Texas Medicine Contents
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