ST. GEORGE – Mounting evidence shows that distracted driving poses a significant threat to public safety. Americans have a big problem on – and in – their hands. Using a mobile device while driving contributes significantly to the number of crashes involving a distracted driver, and yet it is one of the most underreported causes, which leads to underestimating the problem. So the significant threat to public safety is actually a threat of greater significance and no one really knows how fast the threat is growing.
The illusion that humans are capable of multitasking behind the wheel can lead to tragic results.
“We are not seeing the threat that is directly in front of us,” St. George Police Sgt. Craig Harding, traffic supervisor for the department, said, something he repeated again and again.
In this Part III of the St. George News series, “St. George crashes,” we asked people to give their views on distracted driving. Click the play arrow at the top of this report to see what they had to say.
Utah Department of Health hard facts: Drivers using cell phones 1) have a reaction time that is reduced by 18 percent, 2) are twice as likely to be involved in a rear-end crash, 3) are 1.5 times more likely to be involved in a crash that results in injury, and 3) are as dangerous as a driver whose blood alcohol level is twice the legal limit.
In St. George, there has been a significant increase in the number of crashes over the last few years with 2016 showing the greatest increase so far.
Additionally, there is a steady upswing in certain crash types or causes, Harding said.
A local traffic report released at the beginning of October showed an increase of more than 150 crashes in the area over the same period in 2015.
“We are seeing a steady increase in crashes caused by failing to yield, following too close, running red lights and stop signs and failing to maintain lane travel,” Harding said. “But many times distracted driving is the underlying cause in all four,” he added.
Out of the four behaviors, following too close leads to more crashes than the others, Harding said.
“Following too close doesn’t infer (sic) tailgating, as many people believe,” he said, “it refers to being unable to stop before hitting the car ahead, which is either slowing or stopped, most often due to distracted driving.”
Anything that takes the driver’s attention away from the business of driving is a distraction.
“It’s happening when focus and attention are critical to the task at hand,” Harding said, “which is driving.”
One study in 2009 showed that text messaging and talking on a cellphone while driving slows reaction time more than impairment from alcohol or drugs. These drivers have difficulty maintaining their lane and following distances, which makes them four times more likely to be involved in a crash.
The Utah Department of Health statistics show that more than 1/3 of all fatal crashes are caused by failing to maintain proper lane travel, and more than 10 percent were caused by drivers who failed to yield.
Monthly traffic reports for St. George show a 34 percent jump in the number of crashes during the month of August. Further analysis showed a direct link between certain driving behaviors, cause and crash numbers for the year.
In spite of all the research, analysis and statistics it still comes down to a decision, Harding said.
“We need to get to the point where we take individual responsibility for our own driving behaviors,” he said, “and then make a decision to stop the behaviors that are causing crashes.”
Car crashes take a horrible toll on families and communities in Utah: They are the leading cause of injury-related death in the state. In 2015, 275 people died on Utah roadways, and 239 have lost their lives so far this year. That number is current as of November 13, 2016.
Utah distracted driving hard facts: In Utah, distracted driving caused nearly 5,700 crashes that killed 22 people and injured 3,600 more in 2014.
More than 10 percent of all crashes in Utah are caused by distracted driving and more than half resulted in rear-end collisions.
More than 7,000 crashes involved teen drivers, who have the highest rate of distracted driving crashes in the state. It also kills more drivers under the age of 20 than in any other age group.
More distracted-driver crashes occur between the hours of 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.
U.S. distracted driving hard facts: In the United States, distracted driving kills eight people and injures another 1,100 people every day.
Distracted driving comes at an enormous cost. An analysis by the National Safety Council showed that for the first six months of this year, the estimated cost of motor vehicle deaths, injuries and property damage increased 24 percent over 2014, at a cost of more than $150 billion.
Additionally, the safety organization estimates that car crashes involving texting and driving account for more than 25 percent of all crashes in the U.S., but those numbers could actually be much higher.
During a three-year review of more than 180 fatal crashes, the agency found that more than half of all fatal crash investigations failed to include cellphone use as a possible contributing factor, stating:
“We don’t know exactly how many crashes involve drivers using cell phones, and it may not be possible to know. This absence of data contributes to an under-reporting of driver cell phone use in crashes and makes this safety threat appear less substantial than it may actually be.”
Utah’s cellphone and related restrictions:
- Utah classifies talking on a cellphone while behind the wheel as careless driving. This is a secondary offense, meaning you cannot be stopped only for cellphone use.
- All drivers, regardless of age, are prohibited from texting and emailing using any handheld wireless communication device while driving.
- Drivers under the age of 18 are prohibited from using a cellphone in a vehicle, both handheld and hands-free.
Distracted driving laws pertaining to the use of various electronic and wireless devices while driving differ depending upon what state and in some cases what region of the state you are driving in.
The AAA Digest summarizes those laws. For three states near to Southern Utah, the following restrictions apply:
- California prohibits all manner of texting (both reading and writing). It also prohibits cell phone use unless it is in hands-free mode. A further and detailed prohibition applies to 18-year-olds, who essentially may not use any electronic devices including a variety of messaging and computer devices.
- Nevada prohibits texting and handheld cell phone use.
- Arizona’s prohibitions vary by region. In Flagstaff, Phoenix and Tucson, texting is prohibited; in Coconino County, handheld cell phone use is prohibited.
About the series, “St. George crashes”
“St. George crashes” is a St. George News series exploring vehicle crash causes and effects in the immediate region and to some extent statewide and beyond. See the rest of the reports in the series:
- St. George crashes: How many are there and why?
- St. George crashes: Costs, insurance and otherwise, on the rise.
- The Center for Disease Control; Ten leading causes of death by age
- Utah Department of Health
- Drews, et al studies from 2006 to 2009
- National Safety Council
- Utah Crash Facts: 2014
- Utah Department of Motor Vehicles
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