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Eyes on the road

By Staff | Jul 15, 2011

It takes three seconds for a vehicle traveling 45 mph to cover half of the distance of a football field.
A typical distraction for a driver — turning to shout at the children in the back seat, picking something up that dropped on the floorboard — takes the same three seconds. In more than 50 yards, a lot can change or take place.
“And that’s where people get in trouble,” said Jay Anderson, the executive director of Stay Alive … Just Drive! “By the time your reaction time kicks in, you’re technically behind the curve.”
“And, of course, the faster you go, the greater the distance,” he said.
Over the past five years, the United States has experienced a 22 percent reduction in traffic fatalities. However, there has been a 42 percent increase in fatalities attributed to distracted driving, according to officials.
“Distracted driving is now the leading singular cause of traffic crashes,” Capt. Mike Torregrossa of the Cape Coral Police Department said.
July is being recognized as Distracted Driving Awareness Month by the Lee County Board of County Commissioners for the fifth year. Stay Alive … Just Drive! has helped bring the safety issue to the forefront for commissioners.
“Our primary focus is putting emphasis on awareness, just making people aware of how dangerous distracted driving can become,” Anderson said.
Distracted driving is anything that takes a driver’s mind off of driving. Examples can include putting makeup on, reading and eating while driving, while the most common are talking on a cell phone and text messaging.
“Driving in of itself has some inherent risks,” Torregrossa said.
Drivers have to be aware of other drivers and what they are doing, the characteristics of the road and weather conditions, among other things.
“Once you have something that’s distracting you from that, you exponentially increase your chance (of being involved in a traffic accident),” he said. “You’re not focused on what’s going on.”
A driver is 23 times more likely to be involved in an accident while texting. Anderson said there are people who claim that they can pay attention to the road and text, but their mind is focused on creating that text, not driving.
“At any given moment, usually about 1.5 million people are on cell phones while driving,” he said. “That’s the equivalent of seven small states.”
For Distracted Driving Awareness Month, two local businesses — Vein Specialists and AmeriDry — have donated electronic billboard space to help remind drivers of the dangers that are associated with distracted driving.
“It’s all about awareness,” Anderson said. “Driving is the most dangerous activity that we participate in on a daily basis.”
Stay Alive … Just Drive! will continue its outreach efforts by attending community events and educating the public. Anderson was recently at an event and was approached by a woman whose children attended a school where he had given a presentation.
“They came back and told their mother what they saw and how dangerous texting could be,” he said. “She no longer texts while driving.”
Torregrossa said the Cape police try to work with the media to get the word out on distracted driving. If officers come in contact with a situation where a driver is talking on a cell phone or texting, they inform them of the dangers.
“All we’re trying to do is make people aware,” he said.
Officials urge drivers to get off the road if they use a phone.
“You’ve got to take driving very seriously,” Torregrossa said. “If you have to talk, pull off to the side of the road — there’s nothing that urgent.”
Anderson suggested asking: Is it necessary? Is it worth the risk?
Some people claim that they are saving time by using a phone while driving. Torregrossa pointed out that getting into accident as a result of using a cell phone will only waste more time and money and could involve injury or death.
An increase in crashes also translates into higher auto insurance rates for all.
“We kind of take driving for granted,” Anderson said.
As of today, there is no state or federal law that prohibits the use of cell phones while driving. U.S. House Bill 2333, or the Safe Drivers Act of 2011, would ban the use of hand-held mobile devices while driving, but would allow for the use of hands-free devices.
The bill is currently under review by a House subcommittee.
On the state level, bills have been brought forward without success.
“Every time legislation is introduced, it doesn’t have any teeth,” Anderson said, adding that it is usually a secondary traffic offense, not a primary one.
Drivers can be pulled over for primary offenses, like not wearing a seat belt.
“So law enforcement, by nature, does not back the legislation,” he said. “If you’re going to enact a law, you might as well make it worth it.”
Under the previous proposed state legislation, the fines ranged from $30 to $50 with no points put on the driver’s license.
Anderson said he has been working with local law enforcement to have them use the careless driving statute as a means of curbing distracted driving.
The careless driving statute requires drivers to maintain control of their vehicle. If a driver is caught speeding or not staying in their lane and they are on a phone, he asks that law enforcement write up a careless driving ticket rather than or in addition to the other citations.
A careless driving ticket carries a $159 fine and three points on a license.
“The minute they exhibit behavior that is contrary to normal behavior, then you can apply that citation,” Anderson said.
Torregrossa said the Cape police do not do that, but officers will indicate on a ticket if the driver was involved in distracted driving, like talking or texting. If the driver tries to fight the ticket, the judge will see a phone was a factor.
Starting in 2012, law enforcement will be able to indicate on traffic crash forms whether distracted driving was a factor in an accident.
“So we will, in the future, be able to compile data that will assist us,” Anderson said.
Stay Alive … Just Drive! is a nationally recognized crash prevention, education and awareness program aimed at promoting safe driving and curbing distracted driving. For more information, visit: www.sajd.org.