“No text message or phone call is worth the risk”

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By Christopher Elliott

A delivery truck driver talking on a cell phone ran me off the New Jersey Turnpike on a late winter afternoon.

The collision didn’t result in any serious injuries. I’ll never forget the loud “pop” of metal against glass, witnessing the truck flip over. Seeing it grind to a halt in a shower of sparks next to my badly-dented car.

When it happened 17 years ago, there were no laws against talking on a cellphone and driving. But thanks in no small part to a consumer-friendly Transportation Department — the most consumer-friendly ever, perhaps — there are. The latest is a proposed new safety regulation that would prohibit interstate commercial truck and bus drivers from using hand-held cell phones while operating a commercial motor vehicle.

Faces of distracted driving

More on that in a moment. But first, I wanted to share the video (above) with you. I couldn’t make it all the way to the end, and it’s not because I was a victim of a distracted driver. The DOT’s campaign, Faces of Distracted Driving, effectively humanizes a relatively abstract issue, and it just can’t be ignored.

Distracted driving is a significant problem. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that crashes involving a distracted driver resulted in the deaths of nearly 6,000 people in 2008. Over half a million individuals were injured. One out of every five crashes involve a distracted driver, and the problem affects younger drivers (under 20) disproportionally.

Using a hand-held device makes you four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure yourself. This is according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Stricter laws and safety measures

The federal government is pushing states to pass tougher distracted driving laws and enforce existing ones. For example, last spring, the federal government initiated pilot programs in Hartford, Conn., and Syracuse, NY. They need to test whether heightened law enforcement efforts can compel distracted drivers to put down their cell phones and focus on the road.

The latest safety regulation is a proposed Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration rule. It would prohibit commercial drivers from reaching for, holding or dialing a cell phone while operating a commercial vehicle. Drivers who violate these restrictions would face federal civil penalties of up to $2,750 for each offense. They will also be disqualified of their commercial driver’s license for multiple offenses.

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Additionally, states would suspend a driver’s license after two or more violations of any state law on hand-held cell phone use. (Related: TSA watch: Confessions of a rogue Transportation Security Officer.)

Watching the heartbreaking video of Joe Teater’s mother discussing how a distracted driver killed her 12-year-old son helps one understand why the DOT is actively involved in this campaign.

Reflection on government regulations

“Joe Teater wasn’t a statistic – he was a son and a brother. His death left a hole in the heart of his family members and friends,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a prepared statement. “I hope that everyone who hears Judy speak about the tragic loss of her young son will realize that no text message or phone call is worth the risk.”

Have the government’s efforts to end distracted driving have gone too far? I don’t think so, but I’m biased. (Here’s what you need to know before planning your next summer vacation.)

Critics include the Highway Loss Data Institute, which released a study earlier this year. It suggested banning cellphones don’t reduce crashes, as well as the usual suspects, who think the government shouldn’t be regulating anything.

I just can’t help but wonder if Joe Teater would still be with us today if the DOT had started its campaign against distracted driving sooner. Or if my accident could have been prevented.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Rio de Janeiro.

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