WASHINGTON — A texting pickup truck driver who caused a deadly highway pileup in Missouri last year has federal accident investigators taking a hard look at the use of distracting devices behind the wheel.
The National Transportation Safety Board will lay out information gathered in its investigation over the past year and a half at a meeting Tuesday to decide the cause of the accident and make safety recommendations.
The board says a 19-year-old driver was texting just before his pickup crashed into the back of a tractor truck, beginning a chain collision. The pickup was rear-ended by a school bus, which in turn was rammed by a second school bus. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reportingthat the driver was Daniel Schatz, who was the son of state Rep. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, and had been a member of the University of Missouri football team.
Nearly 50 students, mostly members of a high school band from St. James, were on the buses heading to the Six Flags amusement park in St. Louis.
Investigators are seeing texting, cell phone calls and other distracting behavior by operators in accidents across all modes of transportation with increasing frequency, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said. It has become routine for investigators to immediately request the preservation of cell phone and texting records when they launch an investigation, she said.
In the last few years, the board has investigated a commuter rail accident that killed 25 people in California in which the train engineer was texting; a marine accident in Philadelphia in which a tugboat pilot was talking on his cellphone and using a laptop; and a Northwest Airlines flight that flew more than 100 miles past its destination because both pilots were working on their laptops.
"This is trending very hot, and it's a growing concern for the NTSB," Hersman said.
The board has previously recommended bans on texting and cell phone use by commercial truck and bus drivers and beginning drivers, but it has stopped short of calling for a ban on the use of the devices by adults behind the wheel of passenger cars.
The problem of texting while driving is getting worse despite a rush by states to ban the practice, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said last week. In November, Pennsylvania became the 35th state to forbid texting while driving.
About two out of 10 American drivers overall — and half of drivers between 21 and 24 — say they've thumbed messages or emailed from the driver's seat, according to a survey of more than 6,000 drivers by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
And what's more, many drivers don't think it's dangerous when they do it — only when others do, the survey found.
At any given moment last year on America's streets and highways, nearly 1 in every 100 car drivers was texting, emailing, surfing the Web or otherwise using a handheld electronic device, the safety administration said. And those activities spiked 50 percent over the previous year.
The agency takes an annual snapshot of drivers' behavior behind the wheel by staking out intersections to count people using cellphones and other devices, as well as other distracting behavior.