Testimony of Mark V. Rosenker
Vice Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
Before the
Committee on Transportation and Energy
Colorado House of Representatives
House Bill 05-1137

February 3, 2005

Good morning Chairman Pommer and members of the Transportation and Energy Committee. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today about the National Transportation Safety Board’s accident investigations regarding young drivers and cell phone use.

Strengthening your graduated driver licensing law is an important step that will reduce needless deaths and injuries on Colorado highways and help thousands of young drivers in Colorado to adjust to their new driving responsibilities.

The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent Federal agency charged by Congress to investigate transportation accidents, determine their probable cause and make recommendations to prevent their recurrence. The recommendations that arise from our investigations and safety studies are our most important product. The Safety Board has neither regulatory authority nor grant funds. However, in our 38-year history, organizations and government bodies have adopted more than 80 percent of our recommendations.

The Safety Board has recognized for many years that traffic crashes are this nation’s most serious transportation safety problems. More than 90 percent of all transportation related deaths each year result from highway crashes. And a disproportionate number of these highway crashes involve teen drivers age 15 through 20, young people who have only recently obtained their license to drive. Crash rates for young drivers are significantly higher than crash rates for other driving populations.

Traffic crashes account for 40 percent of all deaths among 15 through 20 year olds, making this the leading cause of death for this age group, more than suicides or drugs. In 2003, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drivers under age 21 were involved in 14 percent of fatal accidents and 18 percent of all the drivers involved in police-reported crashes were young drivers. And yet, young drivers constituted only 6.8 percent of the driving population in 2002. Further, 22 percent of all highway fatalities occur in crashes involving teen drivers. Crash statistics for Colorado are just as ominous. In 2002, there were 157 deaths in highway crashes involving 15 to 20 year old drivers.

Young drivers have been the focus of U.S. licensing systems primarily because they constitute the largest group of beginners and have the highest crash risk. A number of studies by Federal agencies, the States, private organizations, and others have shown that 16-year-olds are more likely to be involved in single vehicle crashes, be responsible for the crash, be cited for speeding, and have more passengers than older drivers.

Our current driver education system does not teach young people to drive; it teaches them to pass a test. Learning to drive is a long-term process. Once the mechanics are learned, extensive additional training must be “on the job,” without unnecessary distractions, and with the assistance of a more mature and experienced driver. As their skills and maturity develop, new drivers can then proceed to full licensure.

Colorado has enacted many of the elements of a model graduated driver licensing program. Young novice drivers must proceed through a three-stage program consisting of a learner’s permit with a 6-month holding period and a 50-hour supervised driving requirement, and an intermediate license phase with a night time driving restriction. The legislation before you would add important additional feature that will further reduce the risk that these young, inexperienced drivers will be involved in crashes.

The Safety Board investigation of a crash in Largo, Maryland highlights the need for State laws to protect young, novice drivers from distractions, such as cell phone use, that can lead to crashes.

On February 1, 2002, at about 8:00 p.m., a Ford Explorer Sport was traveling northbound on the outer loop of the Capitol Beltway (Interstate 95/495) near Largo, Maryland at an estimated speed of 70 to 75 mph, when it veered off the left side of the roadway, crossed over the median, climbed up a guardrail, flipped over and landed on top of a southbound Ford Windstar minivan. Subsequently, a 1998 four-door Jeep Grand Cherokee ran into the rear of the minivan. Of the eight people involved in the accident, five adults were killed, one adult sustained minor injuries, and two children were uninjured.

This accident involved multiple risk factors, some of which are associated with young drivers. The accident driver, who was 20 years old, inexperienced, and unbelted, was operating a high-profile, short-wheelbase, sport utility vehicle, with which she was unfamiliar, 15 to 20 miles over the speed limit, while talking on a handheld wireless telephone.

Although the accident driver was 20 years old, and had been licensed for 3 years, she had limited driving experience. She did not own an automobile until purchasing the Explorer on the day of the accident. Her mother, with whom she resided, also did not own an automobile. The driver had occasionally borrowed a vehicle, and her driving experience apparently did not extend beyond that. She was, in effect, a novice driver.

The accident driver was also unfamiliar with the Explorer. The night of the accident was the first time she had driven this vehicle, and during the approximately 2 hours before the collision, she drove the car less than 50 miles.

In the Largo accident, the driver traveled at a high rate of speed, oversteered, and failed to maintain directional control. A landmark study of accident causation found that “unfamiliarity with the vehicle was associated with accidents where maintaining adequate directional control could have prevented the crash” and unfamiliarity was “also associated with excessive speed and improper evasive action.”

At the time of the collision, the accident driver was engaged in a handheld wireless telephone conversation. Her friend stated that “she suddenly yelled twice, and the call disconnected.” Wireless telephone records confirm that the accident driver placed a call moments before the accident. She was following her friend and lost sight of him. The cognitive effect of this conversation may have been greater than that of a casual conversation. Additionally, she was probably scanning the traffic ahead, looking for her friend, and her attention to the task of driving was probably diverted.

In a 2001 study, University of Iowa researchers reported that drivers engaged in wireless telephone conversations were unaware of traffic movements around them. Safety Board accident investigations in several transportation modes have documented the relationship between poor situational awareness and poor performance. These investigations found that when airline pilots, railroad engineers, and ship crews lose situational awareness, they sometimes make operational errors that lead to accidents.

In the case of the Largo accident driver, the potential decrease in situational awareness is likely to have delayed her awareness of the effects of the wind on her vehicle. This delayed recognition of and reaction to the effects of wind probably precipitated her steering overreaction. Therefore, the Safety Board concluded that the accident driver’s distraction due to the wireless telephone conversation with her friend contributed to her loss of control of the vehicle. Due to her unfamiliarity with the vehicle, operating inexperience, and distraction, the accident driver exercised poor judgment in maintaining a speed too fast for the existing, windy conditions and was unable to maintain directional control of her vehicle.

Young, inexperienced drivers are particularly vulnerable to accidents, are easily distracted, and are known to engage in risk-taking behavior. The Safety Board determined that the probable cause of this collision was the Explorer driver’s failure to maintain directional control of her high-profile, short-wheelbase vehicle in the windy conditions due to a combination of inexperience, unfamiliarity with the vehicle, speed, and distraction caused by use of a handheld wireless telephone.

The Safety Board investigated another accident in 2002, in Korona, Florida, in which a 16-year-old driver was following another vehicle, lost control, and ran off the road. Both the Largo and Korona accident drivers were unbelted and engaged in wireless telephone conversations when they lost control of their vehicles.

While the Board recognizes that having access to communication in one’s vehicle can be valuable, drivers in this age group, in particular, should attend only to the task of driving.

There has been a revolution in driver licensing laws in recent years. Virtually every State, including Colorado, has strengthened its driver licensing system. The most recent development has been the addition of cell phone use restrictions by young drivers in the graduated licensing system. New Jersey recently passed a law prohibiting holders of driver’s examination permits from using any interactive wireless device while operating a motor vehicle. On May 23, 2003, the Governor of Maine signed a law restricting drivers under age 18, including persons with an instruction permit and holders of a restricted license, from “operating a motor vehicle while using a mobile phone.” Similar bills are pending in a number of other States.

But, highway crashes involving young drivers continue to be a serious and persistent problem. Our young people are this Nation’s most valuable resource, one that must be nurtured and protected. Too many of them are being killed and injured unnecessarily.

As a result of its Largo, Maryland accident investigation, t he Safety Board concluded that current State laws are inadequate to protect young, novice drivers from distractions that can lead to accidents. Therefore, the Safety Board recommended that Colorado and the other States enact legislation to prohibit holders of learner’s permits and intermediate licenses from using interactive wireless communication devices while driving.

The Safety Board recommends that you strengthen Colorado’s existing GDL system by addressing this important, and unnecessary source of distraction for young, novice drivers. The Largo accident illustrates the tragic consequences of this deadly combination. I urge you take this action to save both young lives and the lives of others involved in crashes with young drivers.

Thank you again for providing me the opportunity to testify about this important initiative. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.