Driven to distraction

Distracted driving now a bigger problem than drunk driving, and just as preventable

Watching yet another motorist illegally surfing her smartphone at a traffic light put us to wondering.

 

Do sheriff’s officers see this? If they’re off duty, do they have to fight the urge to honk and wag their fingers “no”?

“When I was younger, yeah, I had to fight that urge a lot,” says Richmond County Traffic Division Commander Mike D’Amico. “The older I get, I shake my head more than I shake my finger.”

Texting or surfing the Internet while driving — including while idling at a stoplight — is just flat illegal. But more than that, it’s flat-out dangerous — to the driver and everyone around him or her.

Yet, D’Amico says, in terms of the volume of people doing it, so-called “distracted driving” — doing anything other than focusing on the task at hand — has become a bigger problem than drunken driving.

There are vastly more distracted drivers than drunk drivers.

Moreover, most of us have endured decades of worthy and effective anti-drunken-driving campaigns that have done no less than change American culture. And, not to make light of the very serious problem of drinking and driving, but at least one can plan ahead and avoid doing it, with a designated driver or some other arrangements.

Distracted drivers obviously don’t.

And the lack of decades-long campaigns against it means that distracted driving isn’t viewed as the social ill that drunken driving is.

But it’s time to consider it a social ill.

“Unfortunately a lot of folks don’t realize how big of an issue it is because they haven’t been personally impacted by it,” D’Amico notes.

Well, a lot of officers have been impacted by it.

D’Amico is one of them.

Years ago, when he was still on patrol, he arrived at the scene of an overturned vehicle that had hit a power line. A teenage girl had been trapped underneath the wreckage.

But that didn’t kill her. The blaze sparked by a power line and leaking gasoline did.

Underneath her was a flip phone on which she’d been texting — ironically, and tragically, messaging someone that she couldn’t continue the conversation because she was driving.

Sadly, while any distraction is a particular challenge for teens, who’ve only started driving, texting is a particularly deadly one. Especially since these days, they’ve probably been using phones years before they learned how to drive.

Still, D’Amico says you’d be surprised at how the texting/surfing problem is almost evenly divided among age groups. People who definitely should know better are doing it nonetheless. Older adults, he says, “are just as big a violator as the teenagers. We see it in everybody. It’s amazing how widespread that it looks. You can sit at a traffic light and just watch. Everybody’s got something in their hands nowadays it seems.”

How dangerous is it? Consider: In 2015, 3,477 people were killed and some 391,000 were injured in distracted driving crashes, a growing portion of which involves smartphones. According to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, receiving or sending a text takes your eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds.

At 55 mph, you travel 80 feet in three seconds.

“If you look down at a text for three seconds, you’ve gone 240 feet,” D’Amico says. “And three seconds isn’t a lot of time. But it’s certainly a lot of distance. A lot can happen in 240 feet.”

And it just might happen in front of an officer.

Richmond County traffic officer PFC Phil Wasson has become something of a texting-and-driving specialist. The motorcycle officer has a favorite perch or two on Washington Road where he can spot motorists playing with their phones — and can often see their thumbs banging away on them.

He decided early on in his traffic duties that, while speeding often exacerbates accidents, distracted driving may be more of a root cause to many. Wasson considers it part of the job not just to play gotcha with distracted drivers, but to educate them on the risks.

Still, law enforcement can only do so much about texting and driving. Officers pretty much have to witness it, and perhaps verify it with phone records. It frankly surprised us how many citations the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office wrote over the first half of the year: 150 for distracted driving, 41 of which were for texting. The rest were for such things as unsafe operation of radios and phones.

The only real answer is a years-long campaign against texting, surfing and distracted driving. And that has to inspire adults to model the right behaviors in front of youths.

“I think that would certainly start at home with the family,” D’Amico says. “We set the example for our kids.”

Sheriff’s officers do more than just write tickets or issue warnings, both of which can prompt changes in driver behavior. In speaking to churches, schools and civic groups, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office hands out a well-produced booklet on distracted driving by the USAA Educational Foundation that should be mandatory reading in schools and driver’s license offices. It lays out the dangers of distractions, and notably, the top four types — visual, audible, physical and mental — can all be in play when texting or surfing a phone.

The booklet’s urgent recommendations, other than never text while driving, include planning your route in advance; groom at home; avoid eating, drinking or smoking in the vehicle; keep radio and music down low; and either shut off your phone or let calls go to voicemail.

It can wait a few minutes. Each second you focus on the road is a potential lifesaver.

 

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