News of Covid-19 is sweeping the nation, but other serious threats to safety remain. Distracted driving, for example, claimed the lives of 2,841 people in the United States in 2018. Among those killed: 1,730 drivers, 605 passengers, 400 pedestrians and 77 bicyclists, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“Distracted driving is dangerous,” the federal agency said. “Texting is the most alarming distraction. Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed.”
Many safety organizations, including the National Safety Council, say we don’t really know how dangerous distracted driving is because crashes are often underreported. “Unfortunately, no breathalyzer-like test exists for cell phone use behind the wheel and drivers in crashes are often reluctant to admit use.”
Distracted Driving Awareness Month, held each April, has been temporarily suspended due to the current coronavirus pandemic, the nonprofit advocacy group said. However, two new studies released in advance of the previously scheduled observance shed light on how states are regulating and enforcing distracted driving.
The personal injury law firm of Siegfried and Jensen conducted an analysis to understand how states nationwide have implemented laws to regulate distracted driving to reduce risks of crashes and to determine which states have the strictest and most lenient distracted driving laws. Each state was ranked based on 11 metrics related to its distracted driving crash statistics, legislation, and penalties.
- The five strictest states are Illinois, Vermont, Connecticut, Maine, and Rhode Island.
- The five most lenient states are Alabama, South Carolina, Montana, Texas, and Missouri.
- Utah has the highest minimum fine at $750.
- Only three states do not ban texting for school bus drivers: Missouri, Montana, and Arizona.
- Overall, Rhode Island had the strongest laws; Missouri had the weakest. New York was ranked 23rd.
The Risk Institute at The Ohio State University surveyed more than 1,600 highway patrol, sheriffs, police officers and prosecutors across Ohio to understand how law enforcement professionals view the dangers of distracted driving in the state and how to mitigate the growing risk.
Here are some highlights from the analysis:
- Preventing driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs remained law enforcement’s number one priority, but cell phone use surpassed both seat-belt use and speeding as an enforcement concern.
- 94% of respondents expressed support for primary enforcement of distracted driving laws.
“A primary violation law would allow an officer to stop and cite when they see someone looking down into their lap at a cell phone instead of waiting to see if that action also brings about a dangerous event that might cause someone their life,” one officer noted.
- 83% of those surveyed said they support license suspension for repeat offenders. (Officers also indicated support for other penalties for repeat offenders, scaled to the number of offenses.)
- 59% of respondents indicated support for hand-held bans. (Support would likely be higher if the survey was more specific about what the law covered and did not use the word “ban,” researchers said.)
- 98% said they support anti-distraction education
The survey, which was sponsored by the Ohio Department of Transportation and released in February, found that support was highest among officers with more experience. Officers offered a variety of reasons why it is challenging to enforce Ohio’s current distracted driving laws, including the difficulty of proving offences, the fact that laws differ by jurisdiction, and too many exemptions.
“Phones allow for too many distractions that aren’t covered in the law,” a respondent indicated, citing an example of stopping a driver for speeding who was watching a music video on his phone, which was not included as a distraction under the law.
“On a typical day, more than 700 people are injured in distracted driving crashes,” the National Safety Council said. “Talking on a cell phone – even hands-free – or texting or programming an in-vehicle infotainment system diverts your attention away from driving. Keep yourself and others around you safe and #justdrive.