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Driven to distraction 

Distractions cause wrecks. Cell phones distract drivers. So ...

click to enlarge FATALITIES: Cell phones the source of distracted, dangerous driving.
  • FATALITIES: Cell phones the source of distracted, dangerous driving.

Stand at any intersection in Little Rock and it won't be long before a driver comes through, cell phone to ear.

It's true even in Washington, where cell phone use while driving is illegal. (Even, witnesses noted, as a national summit on distracted driving was underway in D.C. last year.)

Arkansas has made strides in limiting some uses of electronic devices in cars, though it's evident that even the small start has had its problems. Other places, particularly foreign countries, have gone much farther.

What seems certain is that the subject will arise again in Arkansas, particularly if a growing national group — fighting drivers' use of phones much as Mothers Against Drunk Driving targeted drinking drivers — expands its influence.

Tales of the victims of phone-distracted drivers are just as grisly as those of drunk-driving victims.

In Arkansas, an adult may use even a hand-held cell phone while driving, though there are restrictions on younger drivers. Arkansas is also one of 25 states that make it illegal to text while behind the wheel in a moving vehicle.

The United States is behind in stopping what a growing body of research indicates is a dangerous practice. Other countries have prohibited the use of cell phones while driving for years. Great Britain made it a criminal offense in 2003. Japan outlawed use of a cell phone while driving in 2002 and made it punishable by up to three months in prison.

During the 2009 legislative session in Arkansas, the texting ban was passed. It was originally written to ban phone use by drivers entirely.

Rep. Ray Kidd, D-Jonesboro, authored that bill, known as Paul's Law after Paul Davidson, who was killed in a head-on collision by a driver who was texting. Davidson's oldest daughter wanted a law to ban all cell phone use while driving because of her father's death and asked Kidd for help.

“She and her uncle drafted a bill to ban all cell phone use,” Kidd said. “We saw it wouldn't pass so we concentrated on texting. We got support — something like 27 of 35 Senate votes — and a good percentage of House votes. During the time we were doing it I got 100 or so e-mails a day for three to four weeks. They told of tragic accidents where their children were killed or injured. It would break your heart to hear the stories. My colleagues got a lot of e-mails and we got calls too. I know that's why it passed with such a wide majority.”

“The fact is it's killing our loved ones,” Kidd said. “It's dangerous; it's something we need to be aware of. The more you talk about it, it rings a bell.”

Kidd is term-limited, but expects more talk on cell phone use while driving during the 2011 session.

Enforcement was an issue during the legislative debate. Kidd agreed it would be tough but he believed that 40 percent to 60 percent of people would obey because it's the law, even though the penalty is only a fine of up to $100.

Most can testify from observation that texting in vehicles continues. Lt. Terry Hastings, the Little Rock police public affairs officer, said, “I'm not sure we've written any tickets. It's very hard to enforce. Nobody is going to divulge that information. Texting is a problem, but it's not obvious and tinted windows don't allow us to see what's going on in a vehicle. If you think they are texting you have to see it or have a witness see them. It's got to be clear-cut.”

Hastings also illustrated continuing confusion on the law by a comment that texting was a secondary violation, meaning it can only be cited after a stop for another violation. Not true. It's a primary offense.

Hastings isn't alone. When called for this article, the Arkansas representative for the Governor's Highway Safety Association said that texting is banned for drivers under 21. All drivers are prohibited from texting.

Arkansas also bans the use of cell phones by drivers under age 18, except in emergencies, and prohibits anyone age 18 to 20 from using a cell phone while driving unless the person is using a hands-free device, or in an emergency.

There's more urgency on the national level. President Barack Obama last October banned all federal employees from using a cell phone while driving a government vehicle. (Gov. Mike Beebe's office says he has no such plans here, though spokesman Matt DeCample notes that the law has always allowed tickets to be written for inattention that causes accidents.)

In addition, competing proposals in the U.S. Senate take different approaches to discourage phone use. One measure would provide financial incentives to states to discourage distracted driving. Another would simply penalize non-compliance.

Federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is on a mission to stop the use of cell phones while driving. Commercial truck drivers have been banned from texting and LaHood hopes to bring an end to cell phone use, too.

This week, Lahood joined hands with Russia and others at the United Nations to promote a global campaign against distracted driving, described as at “epidemic” proportions because of 4.6 billion cell phone accounts worldwide and 600 million passenger cars.

In the U.S., the National Safety Council estimates estimates that at least 28 percent of all traffic crashes — more than 1 million — are caused by drivers using cell phones and texting.

Accidents are common because cell phone use is common. And the popularity of the practice undoubtedly explains opposition to legal restrictions.

Polling in 2009 by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and Nationwide Insurance showed support for total bans on cell phone talking at 43 percent and 57 percent for texting.

Drivers don't know what's good for them. A talking driver with either a handheld or hands-free phone — is four times more likely to be involved in a crash, according to a 1997 New England Journal of Medicine examination of hospital records, and a 2005 study funded by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety linking injury crashes to cell phone records.

The word is getting out, in part from a new advocacy group that already includes members in Arkansas, though not yet a visible lobbying presence.

Oprah Winfrey, the popular talk show host, showcased the movement earlier this year by bringing on founders of FocusDriven, modeled on Mothers Against Drunk Driving. It is committed to raising awareness of the consequences of cell phone use while driving. Every member of its board has lost someone in a wreck caused by a phone distraction.

Jennifer Smith, of Grapevine, Texas, president of FocusDriven, lost her 61-year-old mother on Sept. 3, 2008, when a 20-year-old driver ran a red light and T-boned her car going 45 to 50 mph.

“When I saw the seat she was sitting in, that was the hardest thing for me,” Smith said. “Put your mother, your wife, your son, your daughter, your grandparents, your friend in that seat that my mother was sitting in and you tell me, is that phone call worth it?”

Smith came up with a catch phrase for the cause: “It's not where your hands are; it's where your head is.”

Winfrey continues as an advocate, pushing the issue at the end of each show and enlisting celebrities to sign her No Phone Zone Pledge.

Russell Hurd's story is about the day in 2008 when he waited for his daughter Heather at Disney World to plan her dream theme-park wedding. She was killed on the way. A passenger in her fiance's car, she was killed when it was slammed at a stoplight by a trucker texting on his phone. The nine-car crash killed another woman and injured six.

“We went from planning a wedding to planning a funeral,” Hurd, of Baltimore, said. “I don't want another family to feel what I feel.”

Hurd and his wife inspired legislation in their home state of Maryland to ban cell phone use while driving. He acknowledges the enforcement difficulty. But he said he believes the law is a deterrent. “Education and legislation are the keys to reducing these needless deaths,” he said.

Tragedy-inspired legislation is not unusual. Utah has the toughest ?distracted-driving law in the country — a penalty of up to 15 years in prison for texting while driving.

It arose from the 2006 death of Jim Furfaro, of Logan, Utah, who died in a wreck caused by a young driver who was texting.

Furfaro had picked up a colleague, Keith O'Dell, also of Logan, to drive to work.

“[The police] told me that a 19-year-old who was driving a white Tahoe had crossed the center line and clipped my husband,” his wife, Jackie, said. “He ended up in the oncoming traffic lane and was broadsided by the vehicle behind the 19-year-old, and he was killed instantly, along with Keith.”

The 19-year-old, Reggie Shaw, of Tremonton, Utah, was seen by an investigator texting on the way to a mandatory drug-and-alcohol screening after the crash, which caused the investigator to wonder if he might have been texting while driving. Shaw had no alcohol or drugs in his system, but cell phone records showed he had been texting from the time he got into his car up until the moment of the crash.

Shaw said that before the crash he texted “pretty close to 100 percent of the time” while driving. “I just never thought about it,” he added. “Growing up, going to high school, going to driver's ed, it was never taught to me how dangerous it was.”

The Utah law, which took effect in May 2009, penalizes a texting driver who causes a fatality as harshly as a drunken driver who kills someone. In effect, a crash caused by such a multitasking motorist is no longer considered an “accident.”

“It's a willful act,” said Lyle Hillyard, a Republican Utah state senator and supporter of the new measure. “If you choose to drink and drive or if you choose to text and drive, you're assuming the same risk.”

Many believe they can text and drive safely. Road tests and driving simulators have proven otherwise in test after test. It's not surprising. Research shows a texter takes eyes off the road an average of ?4.6 seconds out of every six seconds while texting. At 55 miles per hour, the driver is covering the length of a football field without looking at the road.

More numbers from the growing body of distracted-driving research:

Drivers who text are 20 times more likely to be in an accident —University of Utah.

Using a cell phone while driving, whether it's handheld or hands-free, delays a driver's reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent — University of Utah.

Driving while using a cell phone reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent — Carnegie Mellon.

80 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of near crashes involve some type of distraction — Virginia Tech 100-car study for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The worst offenders are the youngest and least-experienced drivers; those under 20 years of age. – NHTSA.

Drivers who use handheld devices are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves — Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Like those odds?

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