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Editorial: Distracted driving

Again and again, scores of times a year, drivers who are distracted by a variety of causes are killed, injured or hurt others on the nation’s highways.

Lately, texting or talking on cell phones have been in the news, but drivers who are eating, doing their hair, talking to their passengers or even reading have been caught by bemused police officers.

Worst, of course, are teen drivers who attempt to guide thousands of pounds of metal down roads at 60 to 70 miles per hour while interacting with their friends — often while music blasts from the radio.

It’s a recipe for disaster, and that’s exactly what happens. All too often grieving friends and parents are left to berate themselves for failing to make sure their children are not tempted to “multi-task” while driving.

What can be done?

Recent studies show that distracted driving is under-reported by the nation’s highway safety agencies.

A recent analysis of state and federal data by the National Safety Council of 180 fatal crashes from 2009 to 2011 in which there was strong evidence that the driver had been using a cellphone.

Of the crashes in 2011, only half were coded in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s accident database as involving cellphone use.

Even when drivers admitted to authorities that they were using a phone during an accident in which someone was killed, about half the cases weren’t recorded that way in the database.

This means that evidence that might lead to tougher laws is missing.

One reason for the under-reporting is that unless a driver, passenger or witness tells police a cellphone was being used, officers who respond to crash scenes may have no reason to investigate that possibility. And, police are usually required to get a subpoena in order to obtain cellphone records.

“Can you imagine going through a subpoena process just to check a box on a form when you already have someone for running a red light and causing a fatality?” said David Teater, the council’s senior director of transportation initiatives.

As a result, state laws are a patchwork. Ten states and the District of Columbia require hands-free phones if a driver is going to make calls. No state bans all cellphone use for all drivers, but 36 states and D.C. ban all cellphone use by novice drivers. Currently, 39 states and D.C. ban text messaging for all drivers. An additional 6 states prohibit text messaging by novice drivers.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates accidents, has urged states to ban all drivers from texting, emailing or chatting on a cellphone behind the wheel except in emergencies, saying the practices are simply too dangerous to be allowed.

The board is right, and this gap in our laws should be closed.

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