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Testimony before the Committee on Environmental Matters, Maryland House of Delegates, Regarding Young Drivers and Cell Phone Use
Richard Healing
Maryland House of Delegates, Committee on Environmental Matters, Regarding Young Drivers and Cell Phone Use

Good afternoon Chairman and members of the Environmental Matters 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.

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.

It is no secret that traffic crashes are this nation's most serious transportation safety problem, accounting for more than 90 percent of all transportation-related deaths each year. Young drivers have been the focus of licensing enhancements, primarily because they constitute the largest group of beginners and have the highest crash risk. Traffic crashes account for 40 percent of all deaths among 15-20 year olds, making this the leading cause of death for this age group, more than suicides or drugs.

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 basic 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.

Maryland has enacted several elements of a model graduated driver licensing program. The legislation before you will provide an important additional feature that will further reduce the risk that these young, inexperienced drivers face, and will reduce the likelihood of them being involved in crashes.

Research has shown that the cognitive effects of conducting a conversation on a wireless telephone can decrease situational awareness while increasing reaction time. Safety Board investigations have found that when airline pilots, railroad engineers, and ship crews lose situational awareness, they sometimes make operational errors that lead to crashes.

It is worth noting that an accident in Maryland significantly raised the Board's interest in distractions related to the use of cell phones.

On February 1, 2002, at about 8:00 p.m., a SUV was traveling northbound on the outer loop of the Capitol Beltway 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, another SUV ran into the rear of the minivan. Of the eight people involved in the crash, five adults were killed, one adult sustained minor injuries, and two properly restrained children were uninjured.

This crash 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.

The Safety Board determined that the probable cause of this collision was the Explorer driver's failure to maintain directional control of her 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 use of a cellphone 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 crashes, are easily distracted, and are known to engage in risk-taking behavior.

Mr. Chairman, the Safety Board recommends that you strengthen Maryland's existing GDL system by addressing this source of distraction for young, novice drivers. The Largo crash 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. One indication of the importance of this issue to the Safety Board is its inclusion on our list of "Most Wanted" Safety Improvements.

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.