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Distracted driving increasingly common, hard to police

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For every 10 cars you pass on the highway, it’s possible that at least seven of those drivers are on their phones.

Seven in 10 people are engaging in smartphone activities while driving, and distracted driving has become a habit for one in three drivers, according to research by AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign.

“We’re trying to do more in our lives, and we’re taking that and trying to do it in our vehicles and then we’re calling it multi-tasking,” said Boone Police Lt. Bobby Creed. “Our phones and electronic devices are how we communicate with the outside world. We feel like we have to be a part of that. We’re just so busy that we get in a hurry, and we don’t take the time to really think about inherent dangers behind the wheel.”

Not only has the behavior become common, but law enforcement agencies say they have difficulty enforcing the current North Carolina texting and driving law despite it being on the books since 2009. In addition, inconsistent recording of citation numbers has made it difficult for officials to evaluate prevention efforts.

The North Carolina State Highway Patrol reported 765 texting while driving citations in 2016, 652 in 2017 and 36 so far in 2018. These numbers are significantly lower than the hundreds of thousands other states — such as New York — are reporting.

Consider the numbers

A car traveling at 55 miles per hour travels more than 80 feet every second, according to a report from the National Traffic Law Center.

“Sending or reading a text message can take the driver’s eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds,” the report states. “Sending or reading a text message while driving a vehicle at 55 miles per hour means, therefore, that the vehicle will travel the length of a football field without any visual guidance.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 37,461 lives were lost on U.S. roads in 2016 — an increase of 5.6 percent from 2015. Of these, 3,450 were reportedly due to distracted driving.

A study conducted by the North Carolina Department of Transportation reported 5,831 work zone crashes across the state in 2016. Speeding and distracted driving accounted for more than 50 percent of these work zone crashes.

In Boone, 105 of the 1,195 accidents in 2015 were a result of inattention or distracted driving, 75 of 1,273 in 2016 and 65 of 1,179 in 2017, Creed said. So far in 2018, there are 60 reported accidents with three reported for inattention.

However, despite the number of accidents attributed to inattention or being distracted, Boone Police reported issuing only five texting and driving citations last year. In 2015 the department issued 10, and in 2016 it was 14.

‘A deadly weapon’

Matthew Robinson, Appalachian State University professor in the Department of Government and Justice Studies, said he’s fairly certain the accident he experienced in November was a direct result of distracted driving.

Robinson said he was at a stoplight in Gastonia on U.S. 321 on his way to the Charlotte airport. Driving a Subaru Forester, Robinson said he had been sitting at the stoplight for a solid two minutes.

“The person behind came barreling into me,” Robinson said. “When I got out, she was playing with her cell phone.”

The 20-year-old female who reportedly hit Robinson told the responding police officer that she had “zoned out,” Robinson said.

Robinson said his vehicle sustained damage underneath and to the rear, as the other driver’s vehicle was lower than his.

“As I thought about her texting ... it’s what I expected,” Robinson said. “I excepted it to happen some day if not multiple times in my life.”

Robinson said the expectation that people are going to be texting and driving these days is a sad realization.

“It makes me sad that people are driving around vehicles that weigh thousands of pounds — it’s a deadly weapon, and they’re not paying attention,” Robinson said.

Laws on distracted driving

The North Carolina Department of Transportation defines distracted driving as “any activity that could divert a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving.”

NCDOT provides the following examples of distractions: texting, using a cell phone, eating and drinking, talking to passengers, grooming, reading (including maps), using a navigation system, watching a video and adjusting a radio, CD player or MP3 player.

However, North Carolina only prohibits the use of a cell phone to send or receive texts/emails while driving, and not other forms of distracted driving. The North Carolina General Assembly passed House Bill 9 — prohibiting texting while driving —in 2009.

The current law under 20-137.4A states, “It shall be unlawful for any person to operate a vehicle on a public street or highway or public vehicular area while using a mobile telephone to manually enter multiple letters or text in the device as a means of communicating with another person; or read any electronic mail or text message transmitted to the device or stored within the device, provided that this prohibition shall not apply to any name or number stored in the device nor to any caller identification information.”

A violation of this law results in a $100 fine for adults as well as court costs, and $25 for minors without any court costs. The statute states that those charged with texting and driving would not incur drivers license points or an insurance surcharge.

Currently, 47 states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving for all drivers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Missouri enforces a law that disallows drivers 21 years of age or younger to text and drive while Arizona and Montana offer no type of texting while driving ban.

There are 15 states and the District of Columbia that prohibit hand-held cellphone use while driving, the Insurance Institute states. Six other states have a partial hand held cellphone use ban — including rules on non-use while in marked school zones, while in highway construction areas or by those with a learners permit/intermediate license.

Drivers in North Carolina are allowed to use GPS and other voice-activated devices, according to the Division of Motor Vehicles website.

The DMVs also notes that in North Carolina, novice drivers — or drivers under the age of 18 — are prohibited from all cell phone use while driving. This includes handheld and hands-free use. Bus drivers are also banned from all cell phone use.

Hands-free in NY

New York state enacted the nation’s first statewide hand-held phone law in November 2001 with another texting law enacted in 2009, according to the New York State Police.

The N.Y. law prohibits holding an electronic device to compose, send, read, access, browse, transmit, save or retrieve electronic data such as email, text messages or webpages. It also states that viewing, taking or transmitting images, playing games and holding the phone to talk is illegal, as stated by the New York State Police.

The New York Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee reports that the fines for breaking this law range from $50 to $450, and the driver would also be given five driver violation points.

Drivers who receive 11 points in an 18-month period may have their license suspended, according to the New York DMV.

Those with a probationary license or permit who break the law are given a mandatory 120-day driver license or permit suspension.

In 2017, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that there was a 918 percent increase in tickets for texting while driving in New York from 2011 to 2016. In 2016, New York issued 205,213 total tickets for cell phone use and texting while driving, according to the governor’s office.

Acknowledging the problem

ASU hosted a Distracted Driving Symposium in November presented by various ASU organizations as well as national and state road safety agencies — including Travelers Institute.

The event was focused on Travelers Institute’s campaign “Every Second Matters,” which aims to change social norms around distraction while driving.

A panel of five field experts discussed the issues surrounding distracted driving. Joan Woodward, president of the Travelers Institute and executive vice president of public policy for Travelers Insurance, said most people believe that distracted driving is a problem, but few people will admit that it’s their own problem.

Joan Woodward

Joan Woodward, president of the Travelers Institute and executive vice president of public policy for Travelers Insurance serves as the moderator for the Distracted Driving Symposium at Appalachian State University.

The audience of roughly 100 was asked to use their phones to participate in an anonymous poll. Woodward asked what was the most effective deterrent for a distracted driver: law enforcement fine/citation, pressure from friends, improved safety technology in cars, cell phone blocking technology and knowing someone affected by distracted driving.

The majority of the audience — at 43 percent — found law enforcement issuing fines and citations to be the biggest deterrent. The second largest number — 24 percent — reported knowing someone affected by distracted driving as their reason for not participating in distracted driving.

Fifty-six percent admitted to being involved in a crash or near-crash due to their own distracted driving.

Pete Gulbrandsen

Pete Gulbrandsen, vice president and national auto lead for Personal Insurance at Travelers, speaks as a panelist at a Distracted Driving Symposium at Appalachian State University.

Pete Gulbrandsen, vice president and national auto lead for Personal Insurance at Travelers, told audience members that smartphone ownership went from 35 percent in 2011 to 77 percent in 2016. He said there’s a “pretty strong correlation there with higher frequency (of accidents) and fatalities.”

Jenny Burke, the senior director of advocacy for the National Safety Council, said the council has seen the largest increase in road fatalities in the last two years since 1963.

Jenny Burke

Jenny Burke, the senior director of advocacy for the National Safety Council, talks to audience members at a Distracted Driving Symposium in November 2017.

Burke said the council took crash reports from each state to see what the states were prioritizing on data collection in a motor vehicle collision.

“Distracted driving is not being reported in any way that’s meaningful to really focus prevention efforts,” Burke said. “What we found was most states are not reporting several different factors related to distracted driving at the time of the collision. It’s really difficult for us to have good data and make good public health decisions when we don’t have any basis on which to make this.”

Hard to prove, hard to enforce

In order to police the action, Creed said patrolling officers have to risk taking their eyes off the road to try to observe if a driver is potentially on their phone.

“It’s hard to enforce it because you have to be so close to the violating vehicle,” said Boone Police Lt. Danny Houck. “You have to be beside of the vehicle either stopped or traveling down a four-lane road. It’s really hard to see the violation occur because you have to look out a side window to see them manipulating a phone.”

Drivers could potentially be using phone devices to use social media or find music selections; however, because the law only pertains to texting/emailing and driving, these offenses are not technically illegal in N.C., Houck mentioned.

N.C. State Highway Patrol Trooper J.S. Swagger reported that in 2017, 11 percent of roadway fatalities statewide have been attributed to distracted driving. However, Swagger said SHP believes it happens more than they’re able to prove, as 53 percent of North Carolina roadway fatalities have been attributed to lane departure.

“Sometimes we just don’t know what caused the crash because there wasn’t enough evidence to say it was distracted driving,” Swagger said. “It does cause us concern when we’re unable to prove that or just not enough evidence to say that distracted driving was the reason for this car that left the road or crossed the center line and struck another vehicle.”

The challenge in enforcing the texting and driving law lies with the difficulty of providing proof, Swagger said. There’s typically two options for law enforcement to collect evidence: the owner of the device gives voluntary consent or they obtain a search warrant.

The search warrant would allow law enforcement to download information from the phone during and immediately prior to the crash. This is most often used in the case of a collision involving serious injury or death, Swagger said.

Houck said the law would be easier to enforce if it were changed to hands-free usage, meaning the driver could not have the device in hand. This would prevent drivers from manipulating a phone in any way unless by voice or Bluetooth.

Aubie Knight

Aubie Knight, CEO for Independent Insurance Agents of North Carolina, at a Distracted Driving Symposium held at App State last November.

Aubie Knight, the chief executive officer for Independent Insurance Agents of North Carolina, said he hears objections from legislators about a hands-free bill because they are unsure how their constituents feel about the issue.

“The far right from the Republicans (say) ‘This is a matter of personal freedom, we don’t want the government telling people how to behave and what to do, and this is just another example of overreaching government,” Knight said. “You hear from the left, ‘This may create economic hardship on low economic people; low income people don’t necessarily have cars with Bluetooth and more modern cars. We have some objections of both ends.”

Rep. Jonathan Jordan said depending on the details of the bill, he would likely support a hands-free law. He said he would support a common sense law that promotes safety. While he feels talking on the phone while driving is OK, he said manually entering numbers or letters into a phone is dangerous.

He suggested people use Bluetooth or speaker phone to communicate while driving.

“It’s important for people to be in communication and use their phone some way,” Jordan said. “I definitely would be opposed to prohibiting completely any use, but things that keep us from being distracted and looking down at it, that probably needs to be in place to help safety.”

The state legislature filed a bill in February 2017 requiring the DMV and Department of Public Safety to conduct a distracted driving study.

The study was planned to look at the causes of distracted driving, the average number of injuries and fatalities attributable to distracted driving and measures that can be taken to prevent distracted driving incidents. 

However, the bill was not passed. It was referred to the Committee on Transportation where it remains with no action having taken place.

(1) comment

Citizen Truth

Much larger problem than DUI, where is the outrage? If you have a drink and drive you are the anti-Christ, but texting/messaging idiots get a pass. Makes sense.

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