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Testimony before the Committee on Judiciary Nebraska Unicameral Legislature, on L.B. 768 Cell Phone Use Restrictions for Teen Drivers, Lincoln, NE
Kathryn Higgins
Nebraska Unicameral Legislature, Committee on Judiciary, L.B. 768 Cell Phone Use Restrictions for Teen Drivers, Lincoln, NE

Good afternoon Chairman Bourne, Vice Chairman Pedersen, and Judiciary Committee members. 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 Nebraska highways and help thousands of young drivers in Nebraska to adjust to their new driving responsibilities.

The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent Federal agency charged by Congress to investigate transportation crashes, 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. 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 one of this nation's most serious transportation safety problems. More than 90 percent of all transportation related deaths each year result from highway crashes. A disproportionate number of these highway crashes involve teenage drivers between the ages of 15 to 20, young people who have only recently gotten their driver's license. Crash rates for young drivers are significantly higher than for other populations.

T he Safety Board recommended in 1993 that States implement graduated driver licensing (GDL), the comprehensive provisional license system for teen drivers. In 2002, the Safety Board revisited this issue and added a passenger restriction to its GDL recommendation. Then, following the investigation of a Maryland crash that killed 5 people in early 2003, the Safety Board recommended that a restriction on cell phone use while driving be added to the graduated licensing system.

In spite of the revolutionary changes in driver licensing practices that have been adopted in recent years, teen drivers continue to be involved in an alarming number of crashes. Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers today, accounting for 40 percent of all deaths among 15-20 year olds. Young drivers age 15 through age 20 make up less than 7 percent of the driving population, but compose more than 13.5 percent of the drivers involved in fatal crashes. Further, more than 21 percent of all highway fatalities occur in crashes involving teen drivers.

Crash statistics for Nebraska are just as ominous. While young drivers comprised 8.7 percent of the driving population in 2004, they were more than 17 percent of the drivers involved in fatal crashes. More than 28 percent of Nebraska's 2004 highway fatalities occurred in crashes involving teen drivers.

A recent analysis of 10 years of NHTSA's Fatality Analysis Reporting System data conducted by AAA found that the majority of fatalities in teen crashes are persons other than the teenaged driver themselves. In Nebraska, AAA found that 56 percent of those killed in accidents involving teen drivers were either passengers, occupants of other vehicles, or nonmotorists, such as pedestrians.

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. Studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the States 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, have more passengers than older drivers, and be unbelted. Such fatal crashes are most likely to occur from 10 p.m. to midnight, primarily on Friday and Saturday nights.

Nebraska is to be commended for adopting its Provisional Operator Permit system in 1999. The program includes a 3-phase system with a learner's permit, an intermediate, license, and a full license. Young drivers must obtain at least 50 hours of supervised driving or complete driver education before obtaining their Provisional Operator's Permit. There is a midnight to 6:00 a.m. driving restriction during that intermediate phase. However, there is no restriction on cell phone use by young drivers when they are holding a learner's or intermediate license.

We all recognize that cell phone use is becoming increasingly prevalent. The use of these devices has more than tripled, from 60 million subscribers in 1998 to more than 197 million today. Likewise, increasing numbers of drivers are using cell phones. NHTSA has just released research documenting that an estimated 6 percent of drivers were using hand held cell phones, during daylight hours, in 2005. This translates into approximately 974,000 drivers on the road nationwide at any time during the day using a hand-held phone. NHTSA estimates that 10 percent of all drivers are using some type of phone, whether hand-held or hands-free.

NHTSA also found that cell phone use among young adults, age 16-24, increased from 3 percent in 2000 to 10 percent in 2005. That rate is higher than any other age category.

In 2003, the Safety Board examined the role that driver distraction plays in motor vehicle crashes, especially when the driver is inexperienced. The Board concluded that current State laws are inadequate to protect young, novice drivers from distractions that can lead to crashes. The Board recommended that States enact legislation to prohibit holders of learner's permits and intermediate licenses from using interactive wireless communication devices while driving.

The recommendation is derived from the Board's investigation of a Ford Explorer Sport collision with a Ford Windstar minivan and a Jeep Grand Cherokee on Interstate 95/495 near Largo, Maryland . 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 crash involved multiple risk factors, some of which are associated with young drivers. The unbelted crash driver, who had only an estimated 50 hours of driving experience, was operating a short-wheelbase sport utility vehicle, with which she was unfamiliar. She had just purchased the vehicle a few hours earlier in the day, and had driven it less than 50 miles. She was driving 15-20 miles over the speed limit. At the time of the collision, she 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 had lost sight of him.

The Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the Largo, Maryland 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.

Likewise, you in Nebraska have seen similar tragedies involving young drivers using cell phones or similar devices. Last August, an 84-year-old woman was killed in an accident in Omaha when her vehicle was struck broadside by another car. It appears that the 17-year-old driver of that vehicle was momentarily distracted by a ringing cell phone and ran a stop sign.

More recently, in October of last year, a teenage driver was killed in a single vehicle crash in Morrill County, when her van ran off the road at a high speed, went into a ditch and overturned. According to the police report, her passenger stated that the driver was trying to send a text message on a cell phone

In a 2001 study, University of Iowa researchers reported that drivers engaged in wireless telephone conversations were unaware of traffic movements around them. Last year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that drivers using phones are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. Its findings are consistent with a 1997 Canadian study that also showed phone use was associated with a fourfold increase in the risk of a property damage accident.

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.

The Board recognizes that having access to communication in one's vehicle can be valuable, but drivers in this age group, in particular, should attend only to the task of driving. Learning how to drive and becoming comfortable in traffic requires all the concentration a novice driver can muster. The use of a wireless telephone while driving is inherently dangerous, as is any distraction that diverts one's attention from the driving task. Young, inexperienced drivers are particularly vulnerable to accidents, are easily distracted, and are known to engage in risk-taking behavior.

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. The Safety Board recommends that you strengthen Nebraska's existing graduated licensing 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.

In January 2002, New Jersey became the first State to restrict cell phone use by young novice drivers. Today there are 10 States that restrict cell phone use by drivers with an instructional and/or intermediate license. These include the neighboring States of Minnesota, which restricts cell phone use by all provisional drivers, and Colorado, which restricts drivers with a learner's permit. The Safety Board recommends that you prohibit the use of any wireless communication device, hand-held or hands-free, by holders of learner's permits or provisional licenses, under age 18.

Highway crashes involving young drivers will remain a serious and persistent problem unless concrete and comprehensive steps are taken. Our young people are this nation's most valuable resource, and should be nurtured and protected. Too many of them are being killed and injured unnecessarily.

The Safety Board is so convinced of the life saving benefit of graduated licensing with a cell phone restriction that it recently was added to our list of “Most Wanted” safety recommendations. Adding a cell phone use restriction, such as provided in L.B. 768, sponsored by Senator Jim Cudaback, will significantly strengthen the graduated licensing system in Nebraska. It will 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.