On an August morning in 2010, the 19-year-old driver of a GMC pickup truck traveling eastbound on I-44 in Gray Summit, Mo., was likely attempting to continue an ongoing text conversation, later confirmed by cellphone records. Failing to respond to traffic that had slowed for construction work, he struck the back of a Volvo tractor at 55 miles per hour.
The driver died from the impact, which compressed his car into a U-shape. So did a young passenger in one of two school buses involved in a resulting pileup.
The driver of the Volvo tractor, drivers of the two school buses and 35 bus passengers also sustained minor to life-altering injuries.
The NTSB steps in
This crash prompted the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB), the agency that investigates civil transportation accidents and crashes, to double down on clarifying and promoting recommendations to curb texting, cellphone use and distracted driving in general, said Bruce Landsberg, vice chairman of the NTSB. Missouri and Montana are the only two states that don’t have a ban on texting while driving.
The NTSB continues to work with traffic-related organizations and agencies throughout the nation to develop recommendations to the public, state governments and employers for curbing distracted driving, including educating the public about the dangers of distracted driving while stressing that driving requires full attention.
When you drive distracted
A 2010 white paper published by the National Safety Council (NSC) explored driver attention and distraction. Its findings were astonishing.
Drivers using personal electronic devices suffer “inattention blindness” because the brain prioritizes listening, reading texts and response tasks over driving. Researchers also found that multitasking is not possible for humans. What goes on is the switching of attention from one task to another.
Attention to driving diminishes, according to brain scans. Eye movements indicate drivers view smaller portions of the path ahead, disregarding traffic approaching from the sides. Responses are delayed. Even more alarming, there’s often no response at all to pedestrians or changing lights.
The study concluded these changes also occur when using hands-free devices and when talking with passengers.
NTSB has recommended that states ban all driver use of personal electronic devices except for driving tasks such as navigation, strengthen roadside monitoring and enforcement and encourage employers and fleet owners to adopt policies that prohibit cellphone use while driving or require implementation of lockout features for company vehicles.
Despite those recommendations, thousands of catastrophic crashes have occurred in the United States since the one in Gray Summit. And the annual numbers continue to rise.
In 2021, 42,915 people died in motor vehicle crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The figure represents the highest number of fatalities since 2005, a 10.5% increase from the 38,824 fatalities in 2020 and the largest annual percentage increase in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System’s history.
While distracted driving crashes also occur due to eating, drinking, attending to passengers or engaging in any number of nondriving activities while behind the wheel, the use of electronic devices—whether handheld or hands-free—has emerged as a significant cause of fatal crashes and pedestrian and cyclist fatalities.
Though 48 states have banned texting while driving, 60% of drivers 18 years or older continue to text and drive, according to a 2019 survey published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“One huge problem with preventing crashes is enforcement,” Landsberg said. “And ‘crash’ is an important term to use because, unlike accidents, which are rare and unforeseen, crashes are preventable.”
Curbing distraction, starting at work
The NTSB recognizes that an employer’s leeway to restrict cellphone use may help bring about change. This relates to the circumstance of “at-will employment,” which means an employer can fire an employee for any reasonable cause not considered illegal or protected by employment laws.
Because employers can restrict electronic device use while driving as a condition of employment, Landsberg said, this offers a starting point for reducing electronic device use and spreading awareness.
“If people can begin to drive safely while working,” he said, “they’re more likely to drive safely at other times.”
From a traffic safety point, the success strategy of starting with a key group is not so different than the “Buckle up for safety” campaign of the late 1990s targeted to high schools that encouraged crops of new drivers to wear seat belts.
In this case, employers convincing employees not to use electronic devices also makes good business sense.
“Many small businesses are just one fatal crash away from being wiped out completely,” Landsberg said. “In the case of the electrical industry, employers realize an employee in a car crash is just as dead as when they grasp a 500V line, only more people may be involved. Crashes are devastating, and they pose significant risk to a business’ bottom line.”
Insurance companies realize this, too. They’re also trying to help employers curb risk.
“When your drivers are out on the road, it can be hard to gain insight into what challenges—or distractions—they are encountering behind the wheel,” said Tom Allison, senior marketing representative for Federated Insurance, Owatonna, Minn. “In the past, curbing unwanted behaviors from drivers was not an easy task, but it’s becoming more necessary with unsafe driving habits potentially leading to increased accidents, losses and higher premiums.”
Federated Insurance, a specialty insurer, focuses on industries and trade groups. It offers general videos on safety, specific presentations and mini-tests related to electrical safety. The company also provides phone apps that relay regular workplace safety reminders.
To address distracted driving, business owners and fleet managers can install wireless, battery-powered tags in company vehicles and use Federated’s DriveSAFE app to measure phone use, speeding, hard braking, rapid acceleration and harsh cornering. This enables supervisors or safety directors to analyze driving behavior, view trip history, vehicle location and manage teams of drivers.
Federated also makes customers aware of “telematics” solutions offering similar capabilities. Some include in-cab cameras to detect cellphone use and distracted driving. Platforms that connect to GPS offer additional benefits such as streamlining routes to jobs. They also may be useful to determine a driver’s responsibility when a collision occurs.
Tim Whicker, owner of Electric Plus Inc., Avon, Ind., has a fleet of 150 pickup trucks and service vans for completing electrical work throughout Indiana. As a long-time Federated customer, he said the safety resources he’s been able to access for his employees over the last 10 years are why he’s chosen to stay with the company.
Bruce Landsberg, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board
“There was always a lot of lip service from other companies about helping us be safer, but Federated was at our door saying, ‘Here are your tools,’ and ‘Send this video out to your employees,’” Whicker said. “We wanted that.”
As far as distracted driving goes, “It’s maybe a quarter of our overall risk,” Whicker said. “From an exposure standpoint, of all the risks we face, distracted driving is probably the biggest single risk out there.”
Wanting to protect his 450 employees and the company he started in 2006, Whicker moved beyond Federated’s driving apps to more stringent measures.
Electric Plus employs TRUCE Software, which uses a phone app and black box installed on vehicles that shuts operation down when texting is detected. “There’s no easy way to defeat it,” Whicker said. “Sometimes people try deleting the app, but we make them put it back on.”
Locking drivers out might seem an extreme measure, but the practice is recommended by NTSB.
“We did get a lot of pushback with people saying things like, ‘I’m a grown man! I don’t need somebody telling me what to do,’” Whicker said. “And I’m saying, ‘Yeah, but you’re not doing this in my truck.’”
Taking the resistance in stride, Whicker communicates regularly with members of his workforce about safety. He also writes a regular blog called Whicker’s Weekly Word, which explores a variety of work-related topics, including safety.
For his zero-tolerance policy on texting while driving, and being heavily invested in safety overall, he has earned Allison’s admiration, kept insurance premiums in check and attracted a growing number of customers.
Electric Plus works with larger general contractors throughout Indiana, providing electrical services for schools, processing plants, hospitals and other organizations.
“You don’t get those big jobs if you’re not a safe contractor and focused on safety,” Allison said. “Other contractors won’t want to work with you.”
The NSC white paper doesn’t say whether hands-free communication is any less dangerous than texting, but later research commissioned by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) suggests there may be a significant difference. Consequently, the DOT allows motor carrier drivers to use hands-free devices, as do several states.
“It’s illegal in Indiana to touch a phone while driving,” Whicker said. “For investigating accidents, lawyers will subpoena phone messages. Hands-free communication for [licensed] drivers [over the age of 18] is legal, though.”
Whicker covers the cost of additional Bluetooth technology that allows employees to connect to TRUCE technology and respond hands-free to text and phone messages while driving.
If Indiana state laws tighten, this practice might have to change, but until then, Whicker is doing his part to make the roads and his business safe.
Header image: NTSB / Getty Images / aleksey-martynyuk