WASHINGTON — Twenty-eight percent of all traffic accidents are caused when people talk on cell phones or send text messages while driving, according to a study released Tuesday by the National Safety Council.
The vast majority of those crashes — 1.4 million of them — are caused by cell phone conversations, while an additional 200,000 are blamed on text messaging, the council report said.
Because of the extent of the problem, federal transportation officials unveiled a new organization Tuesday, patterned after Mothers Against Drunk Driving, that will combat driver cell phone use. The group, FocusDriven, grew out of a meeting on distracted driving sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation in Washington last year.
Virtually everyone owns a cell phone, and it's evident to anyone who drives regularly that huge numbers of people — including some who support a ban — use them while driving. Persuading people to break that habit will be a tall order for FocusDriven.
Enforcement of a texting ban requires officers to observe an act that usually is conducted in a driver's lap, and hands-free devices make it possible to talk on cell phones without being observed. More than 120 studies of cell phone use suggest that requiring hands-free devices doesn't eliminate the distraction caused by a phone conversation.
"It's not easy to enforce (a ban), but it's not impossible," said Chuck Hurley, executive director of MADD, who attended Tuesday's announcement of the new group's formation. "The main reason people talk on their cell phones is because they can. Eventually, (signal blocking) technology will address that."
Whether there is the political will to enforce bans on cell phone use is another matter.
Bans on text messaging illustrate the challenge. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have banned it, but in four of those states — Virginia, New York, Washington and Louisiana — the laws require that an officer have some other primary reason for stopping a vehicle.
"That makes it impossible for police to enforce it effectively," said Illinois state Sen. John Cullerton, a leading advocate for traffic safety. "It's a convenient way to compromise and get bills passed in state legislatures."
Hurley put it more bluntly:
"Secondary enforcement is a huge problem," he said. "It is a sign of weak politicians. It saves very few lives."
The challenge of legislating against cell phone use while behind the wheel is greater than similar auto safety initiatives like those in favor of seat belts and child car seat use, or against drunken driving.
In each of those instances, the public safety issue was more clearly understood and, ultimately, enforcement led drivers to comply.
Hurley, who spent 21 years with the National Safety Council before joining MADD, has been involved with virtually all of the major traffic safety campaigns for more than three decades.
His experience suggests that new laws and educational campaigns — like trumpeting the startling numbers the National Safety Council released Tuesday — don't provide sufficient incentive for most drivers to change their habits.
"A lot of goodwill is created and people die just the same," he said. "Education alone is a proven failure. Education and enforcement are a success."
He cites seat belt use as an example. The "Buckle Up for Safety" campaign was well received, but only 13 percent of drivers complied. The "Click It or Ticket" campaign has proven much more effective, he said.
Public campaigns featuring mothers whose children died in crashes where drinking was a factor caught public attention, but the Operation Strikeforce efforts that employed sobriety checkpoints hammered home the consequences of drunken driving.
Hurley said the best first step for FocusDriven will be to get employers to ban use of text messaging and cell phones when driving. President Obama last year imposed a texting ban on all federal employees while using government vehicles or using government-issued phones in their own vehicles.