Getting out of hand?

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Updated Dec 14, 2009

When I wrote Friday about the media ramp-up to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s so-called “distracted driving summit,” which begins today, noting the broad definition of on-board technology in some safety groups’ analyses of in-cab distraction, little did I know that the New York Times would follow with a more supposedly in-depth look at the subject on Sunday that, well, might have given some credence at least to my “here’s hoping it all doesn’t get out of hand” thought.

The Times piece, headed “Driven to Distraction: Truckers Insist on Keeping Computers in the Cab,” singled out none other than the old Qualcomm and similar on-board dispatching technology so many fleet drivers and leased owner-operators use. Profiled in the piece was just a single driver who uses a Qualcomm-type unit to communicate with dispatch. Among several fouls in the piece, says the American Trucking Associations, are the assumption that this single driver “was fairly representative of 3.4 million commercial drivers.”

Furthermore, the reporters at the Times misread truck crash figures, lumping in smaller class vehicles with large trucks in more recent NHTSA data to show that vehicle deaths and crashes have increased over 10 years. The opposite, of course, as it relates to the heaviest on-highway vehicles, the most likely to be running on-board Qualcomm or other computer systems, is true. For those interested in further reading, you might find this litany from ATA’s release yesterday on the subject interesting:

“A Times editor today told ATA it will run two corrections to the article’s representation of truck crash data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The first error: The story stated that NHTSA data shows the number of large-truck-involved crash deaths rose significantly from 1997 to 2007, when in fact the number decreased by 11 percent.
“The error occurred because the newspaper staff misinterpreted figures that NHTSA published in its “Traffic Safety Facts” for 1997 and 2007. The two figures were not comparable. The 1997 figure was for trucks over 26,000 pounds gross vehicle weight while the 2007 figure was for trucks over 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight, which inflated the 2007 number.

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“The second error: The story stated that large trucks “caused” the deaths that occurred in those crashes, when actually NHTSA states only that those crashes ‘involved’ large trucks. In fact, it is most likely that a majority of those deaths were caused by automobile drivers, not truck drivers. Numerous scientific studies, including one by the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety, have found that approximately 75 percent of all fatal car-truck crashes are caused by the car driver.

“Although the newspaper received the following ATA policy on driver distraction on Sept. 2, it was not included or referred to in the article: ‘ATA supports the safe use of technologies and encourages drivers and/or motor carriers to consider a range of policies and safeguards intended to reduce, minimize and or eliminate driver distractions that may be caused by the increased use of electronic technologies (e.g., global positioning systems, cellular phones, etc.) during the operation of all types of motor vehicles. ATA strongly encourages and recommends that manufacturers of these devices, vehicle manufacturers, policymakers, motor carriers and organizations representing motor carriers and the motoring public promote and adopt awareness, training, safety policies on the use of such technologies—unless required by current laws or regulations—during the operation of a motor vehicle on our nation’s highways.’

“Other problems with the Monday story include:

“*This statement was unattributed – ‘The trucking industry says these devices … should be exempted from legislation that would ban texting while driving.’ This is inaccurate.
*The statement ‘we think that’s overkill’ was said to refer to federal legislation that would pressure states to ban texting. In fact the statement referred to unintended consequences that might occur from the legislation.
*The story suggested the sole driver profiled in the article was fairly representative of 3.4 million commercial drivers.

“Driver distraction is a significant highway safety issue and ATA will participate in a U.S. Department of Transportation Distracted Driving Summit Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 in Washington, D.C., with government officials, insurance company representatives and many other stakeholder and advocacy groups. ATA looks forward to contributing to the national dialogue on how best to reduce or eliminate technology-related and other distractions while driving.

“Less than a week ago an editorial in the Times contained similar incorrect statements. ATA has requested a correction to the editorial and submitted a letter to the editor about it as well. Problems with the editorial included:

“*Like the Sept. 28 article on driver distraction, the Sept. 23 editorial incorrectly presented federal safety statistics, saying that there are ‘more than 5,000 fatal truck crashes a year.’ In fact the number of such crashes has been significantly below 5,000 per year since 1980, even though the number of miles traveled by trucks each year has substantially increased. This error occurred because Times staff read from the wrong column in a chart of truck crash statistics. (Source: Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Analysis Division / Large Truck and Bus Crash Facts 2007, Published January 2009, Page 4, Table 1.)
*An incorrect assertion that a change in 2004 to commercial drivers’ Hours of Service was a ‘loosening of regulations on drivers’ schedules and driver fatigue.’ The changes shortened drivers’ work days by at least 1 hour, sometimes more, and lengthened drivers’ daily rest periods by two hours, while allowing 1 more hour of driving within the shortened day. That cannot constitute a ‘loosening.’
*A false accusation that the trucking industry was responsible for ‘efforts to thwart and defeat policies and programs needed to protect the public and promote the health and safety of truck drivers.’

“The ATA has also asked the newspaper’s Public Editor to review the errors in the article and the editorial.”

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