Viewpoint: Cell phones and public transportation — a deadly combination
Within the past three years, dozens of deaths have been attributed to operators of mass transit vehicles being distracted by cell phone calls and text messages. In the Chatsworth district of Los Angeles in 2008, 25 people lost their lives when a Metrolink train collided with a freight train. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that the Metrolink train ran through a red signal because the train’s engineer was distracted by text messages he was sending from his cell phone while on duty, including the final text at 22 seconds before the head-on collision.
Each day that goes by in which transit drivers use personal cell phones while on duty adds more risk that local governments could be held liable if a driver causes an accident that kills or injures people and destroys property. Even if rules prohibit public transportation drivers from using cell phones, the rules often are not followed because drivers are almost always without supervision and on the honor system. Left with the boredom of the job, the cell phone proves to be the candy that cannot be resisted.
The NTSB has placed cell phone use by operators of moving vehicles on its “Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements” in 2010 and has proposed to install video cameras in public transportation vehicles to monitor operators. Unfortunately, video cameras usually only serve to help report on the cause of an accident after it occurs. As incidents have shown in Los Angeles and San Antonio — where a texting bus driver caused a pileup on the freeway — cameras provide shocking footage but do nothing to protect lives. No camera has ever prevented an accident, and no text message is worth the injury or death of innocent passengers.
The technology is available to detect and alert train and bus dispatchers to the use of an unauthorized cellular device in a prohibited area. The train engineer then can be contacted and instructed to turn the cell phone off. The operator has a chance of correcting his or her action, and the authorities have a way of making sure it takes place.
At the same time, cell phone service providers can curtail the situation, and they are not being held accountable for their inaction in protecting lives. That should change immediately. The cell phone industry needs to step up and accept some responsibility for the misuse of cell phones that lead to deaths. They should conduct a public awareness campaign; monitor cell phone use by train engineers, bus drivers and the like; and report on any activity that happens on a moving vehicle.
It would be easy to argue that if we are going to monitor cell phone use by drivers of mass transit vehicles, why not extend the monitoring to all city and county vehicle operation? However, in our race to protect lives, there is a limit to what we can and should do to restrict cell phone use. It is imperative that we do not go so far as to try to control every city and county employee’s cell phone conversation in a vehicle.
The practicality of it is impossible, and the enforcement is a waste of time. However, every effort should be made to safeguard the lives of public transportation riders and innocent bystanders. We have an opportunity — and an obligation — to provide better safeguards on vehicles used to transport our community members every day.
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.