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HFES Bulletin

November 2009
Volume 52, Number 11

Public Policy Matters:
Focus on Driver Distraction and Transportation Law

Public Policy on Distracted Driving
By William C. Howell, Chair, Government Relations Committee

     Unless you've been in a coma the past couple of months, you're undoubtedly aware that the feds and the media have finally awakened to the serious and growing problem of driver distraction. In this special section, John Lee clearly documents this enlightenment in his report on the high-profile U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Distracted Driving Summit. William Horrey provides an update on U.S. federal funding initiatives for surface transportation. Peter Hancock, reporting on the First International Conference on Driver Distraction and Inattention, reminds us that the concern isn't just a domestic one.

     It's clear that the field of HF/E has contributed heavily and continues to play an important role in this area. What you probably don't know is the backstory on how HFES has figured into this picture. Although direct cause-effect relations are almost impossible to nail down in public policy developments, we've been actively promoting this issue ever since publication in Human Factors of the special section on driver distraction in 2004 (Vol. 46, No. 4, Winter 2004). I'll summarize a bit of the story here to illustrate how a relatively small organization like HFES can help advance policy and to update you on some post-DOT summit developments.

     Given the considerable overlap between HF/E and psychology in work bearing on this issue, and that the American Psychological Association (APA) has a large government-relations staff with which HFES has collaborated in the past, we solicited their participation in elevating the policy world's attention to (and investment in addressing) the distraction problem. The APA assigned a well-connected lobbyist, former Senate Appropriations Committee senior staffer Michael Hall, to this effort, and his firm - in collaboration with APA/GR's Geoff Mumford and our own HFES Government Relations Committee - has been shaping and executing advocacy strategy ever since. Space doesn't permit a detailed account of these activities, but they have included working with key congressional offices and agencies on policy objectives that we considered both doable and potentially effective. Among them was pushing for release of a DOT action plan that was prepared in June but has remained on the shelf. It's possible that this nudging - along with some media coverage - had some bearing on DOT Secretary Ray LaHood's renewed interest in the issue and decision to hold the recent summit (from which an updated version of the plan may finally see daylight). Equally important has been the involvement in recent legislative activities.

     At this writing, a number of House and Senate bills targeting the distraction problem have been introduced and are making their way through the legislative process. The most promising seems to be Rockefeller/Lautenberg (S.1938). Hearings were held in both the Senate (October 28) and House (October 29) that included testimony from HFES members, and questions were supplied in advance to committee members' offices for use in questioning Secretary LaHood and others. Although I can't go into detail here, it appears that some form of legislation is virtually certain to pass, and the HF/E and psychology perspectives and evidence will be well represented. But if public policy is the proverbial sausage, perhaps this little crack in the factory door will enable you to catch a glimpse of how it's made and how the ingredients from HF/E have been worked into this extremely important batch.


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