Rules of the Road

Distracted-driving crackdown could cost you $124 – or more

Cars keys rest next to a bumper sticker handed out to spectators at Bellingham High School during a charity basketball game to raise money for the Anna Brulotte Memorial Fund on Nov. 9, 2010. Anna, 2, was killed Sept. 30, 2010, when she was struck by a car while crossing Virginia Street with her mother and two siblings. The driver was distracted and not looking at the road.
Cars keys rest next to a bumper sticker handed out to spectators at Bellingham High School during a charity basketball game to raise money for the Anna Brulotte Memorial Fund on Nov. 9, 2010. Anna, 2, was killed Sept. 30, 2010, when she was struck by a car while crossing Virginia Street with her mother and two siblings. The driver was distracted and not looking at the road. The Bellingham Herald

Instead of answering a question this week, I’m going to let you in on a bit of information that could save you $124, or even (not to be too dramatic) your life. During the first two weeks of April, local law enforcement agencies are participating in a national distracted-driving enforcement campaign. That means extra cops on the road, looking specifically for distracted drivers. You’re welcome.

Nearly a decade ago, Washington adopted our cellphone law, and I’ll admit at the time I wasn’t fully supportive. Not because I didn’t think cellphones were a distraction, but because I thought it would diminish the perception that many other activities in which drivers engage are also distractions.

Since then, I’ve changed my view. I’m not dismissing other distractions; it’s just that phones create a uniquely high level of distraction. This isn’t my personal view; it’s supported by crash data. But before we look at the numbers, let’s consider the types of driving distractions:

Manual distraction: Things that take your hands off the wheel. This includes putting on makeup, shaving, changing clothes, dialing a phone number and steering with your knees while unwrapping a cheeseburger you just got from the drive-thru window.

Visual distraction: Things that take your eyes off the road, such as reading a text or watching things outside not related to driving. Have you noticed that when there is a serious crash on a busy freeway, there is often a minor crash in the opposing direction? That’s a distracted-driving crash. It seems as though seeing a crash should remind us to pay more attention, but often it has the opposite result.

Cognitive distraction: Things that take your mind off driving. A lot of things fall into this category: daydreaming, mentally reviewing a shopping list, formulating a response to a text and telling your son not to put his gum in his sister’s hair.

All kinds of activities can take our minds away from driving, but you can see why cellphone use increases crash risk more than other distractions – it involves all three types of distraction. Consider this: Our cellphone law was passed before the iPhone was even available. Cellphones were already becoming a traffic safety problem when the only things we could do with them were talk and text, and we paid by the minute and per text.

Now we can send email, check stock prices, watch YouTube, play Candy Crush (curse you, Candy Crush, for stealing so many hours of sleep!). And most of us have nearly unlimited data plans with which to do it. That level of distraction and availability has had deadly results on our roads.

32 Percent of northwest Washington fatal crashes in 2014 that involved distracted driving

For drivers who are distracted by things besides phones, the cellphone law is not the only available enforcement tool. A distracted driver that “endangers or is likely to endanger any person or property” could be charged with negligent driving. There is also a little-known law prohibiting embracing while driving.

Distracted-driving crash data is gathered from police reports, which means that when a driver admits to a type of distraction at the scene of a crash, the officer documents it. As you can imagine, this method likely underrepresents the frequency and seriousness of distracted driving. Also, drivers may admit to not paying attention without specifying what caused the distraction, so the results are inclined to show a disproportionate number of generally distracted drivers. An insurance company study reviewed these reports and found that cellphone use resulted in nearly double the fatal crashes of the next specific distraction on the list – visual distractions outside the car.

You might be asking, “But really, how serious of a problem is distracted driving? Is it worth putting extra resources into enforcing distracted-driving laws instead of something more serious, such as impaired driving?” I’m glad you brought that up. First of all, distracted-driving patrols don’t replace impaired-driving enforcement. Locally and statewide, most of our emphasis patrol resources go to impaired driving. And with good reason: Impaired drivers are responsible for about half of all traffic fatalities in the state.

While we’re on the topic of impaired driving, allow me to make a link back to distracted driving. A group of researchers found that using a phone while driving presented a risk comparable to driving with a 0.08 blood alcohol level. In our region – the four most northwest counties in Washington – distracted driving was a contributing factor in 32 percent of the fatalities and 29 percent of the serious injuries in traffic crashes in 2014.

Brain scientists have found that the primitive part of our brain compels us to respond to our phones, even when driving. It’s time for us to evolve beyond being controlled by our digital devices and use our higher reasoning to leave the phone alone when driving. As the campaign slogan goes, “If you’re texting, you’re not driving.” Putting the phone down keeps us safer, and with emphasis patrols going on now, it can save $124.

Be kind and drive wise.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information, visit TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.

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