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June 25, 2022

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State, national transportation agencies step up battle to eliminate distracted driving as deaths, injuries pile up


As part of their response to a yearslong rise in highway deaths, national and state organizations are taking aim at distracted driving, hoping to reduce what one official called “a plague on our roads.”

Distracted driving, which literally means anything that takes a driver’s attention away from the road, can range from talking or texting on the phone to head-banging to music on the car radio, goofing around with friends, eating, using headphones or applying makeup.

The results can be deadly: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says deaths resulting from distracted driving have been increasing for the past decade and reported 3,142 people died that way in 2020, making up about 8.1% of traffic deaths.

Another 420,000 Americans were injured in accidents involving distracted drivers.

“Distracted driving is one of the fastest growing traffic safety threats,” Theresa Podguski, director of legislative affairs for AAA East Central, said in a news release. “Any distraction, whether it’s texting or talking to a passenger, takes a motorist’s attention away from the road and can have dangerous consequences.”

Reducing distracted driving is a key element of the federal Department of Transportation’s National Roadway Safety Strategy. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced the strategy earlier this year after traffic deaths increased at record levels the past two years, despite reduced driving during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result, organizations are stepping up efforts to encourage drivers to keep their attention on the road with a special emphasis during April, which is Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

For example, the Governors Highway Safety Association announced it is teaming with General Motors on what it calls “an action-oriented, recommendation-rich report” to teach drivers not to distract themselves. Once the report is issued this summer, the association will offer competitive grants to State Highway Safety Offices to implement programs.

“Look around and you’ll see distracted drivers everywhere — it’s a safety epidemic,” GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins said in a news release. “This unique collaboration will shine a light on this problem and help advance one of the core principles outlined in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Roadway Safety Strategy, which calls for safer people by encouraging safer behaviors. Making attentive driving the norm will benefit everyone on the road.”

Using a cellphone while driving probably is the most common distraction. A pair of opinion polls by Advocates for Road and Highway Safety in the past few months show how difficult the problem may be to solve.

In December, a poll by the agency found that 84% of those surveyed were “extremely” or “very” concerned about distracted drivers and thought officials aren’t doing enough to stop the behavior or improve vehicle technology to reduce crashes.

But in another survey in March, 70% of drivers said they had used their cellphone while driving in the previous 90 days.

Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, called distracted drivers “a plague on our roads.”

“One in three people involved in or knowing someone in a distracted driving crash where mobile device use was a factor should send off blaring alarms that urgent action is needed to address this public health calamity on our roadways,” Ms. Chase said. “The public understands this hazard and strongly supports numerous strategies to prevent distraction and its impacts, especially requiring advanced vehicle safety technologies in all new vehicles, which continues to be a top priority of Advocates.”

Last week, the Pennsylvania court system issued a news release in which it said citations for distracted driving across the state had fallen substantially in the past two years, from 4,292 in 2019 to 2,163 in 2021. There was a 47% drop from 2019 to 2020, followed by a 6% in 2021.

Pennsylvania State Police and state accident statistics show that the drop in citations doesn’t necessarily mean there has been a reduction in distracted driving. Drivers can be cited for texting while driving, eating and other actions that take attention off the roadway.

Police Cpl. Brent Miller said state troopers were instructed not to enforce distracted driving laws from early 2020 through mid-2021 to maintain social distancing during the height of the pandemic.

“Our enforcement efforts weren’t up to par,” Cpl. Miller said. “I think the numbers for citations for distracted driving in most categories for a full year of enforcement will be higher.”

PennDOT spokeswoman Jennifer Kuntch said the reduction in citations didn’t seem to be reflected in accident statistics. Preliminary data for 2021 showed fatalities in crashes involving distracted drivers increased by 25% and serious injuries by 17%, although the full data is not yet available.

In 2020, 47 fatalities were linked to distracted drivers and 62 in 2019.

The National Distracted Driving Coalition — a group of public and private sector, law enforcement and nonprofit groups — continues to push a strategy to reduce distracted driving.

“Distracted driving is a completely preventable behavior that caused 3,142 deaths and thousands of life-altering injuries in the United States in 2020,” said Jeff Brewer, vice president of public affairs for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, one of the coalition members.

“A call, text, or stream is never worth losing your life or killing someone else on the roads, yet distracted driving fatalities often occur as a result of the use of handheld devices behind the wheel. Despite laws enacted in many U.S. states designed to reduce the use of devices for messaging or texting behind the wheel, cellphone use remains a significantly dangerous problem.”

AAA offers a series of tips to avoid distracted driving:

  • Complete all preparations, such as adjusting mirrors, seats, sound systems and GPS, before starting to drive.
  • Put away cellphones if you are driving by yourself or have a passenger use it if it is necessary to communicate with someone else during a trip.
  • Finish grooming, such as fixing hair and makeup, before leaving home.
  • Secure children, pets and any other items that can move around the vehicle so they don’t become a distraction.

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