The National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines distracted driving as “any activity that diverts attention from driving.” Driving while intoxicated fatalities certainly deserves the attention it receives, but don’t overlook the alarming, distracted driving numbers.

The latest 2019 NHTSA survey revealed that at least nine people die each day and more than 1,000 are injured due to distracted driving. It’s also the second leading cause of death among teens, ages 16-19 years-old.

Distracted driving is broken into four different categories. Visual distracted driving is when someone takes their eyes off the road to look at something else. Auditory describes hearing anything not related to driving, while manual is manipulating something other than the steering wheel.

The final category is cognitive. This is when the driver is thinking about something else other than driving. Cell phone use falls into this category. Talking or texting on a cell phone—even a hands-free one—is a cognitive distraction.

“Out of all the types of distraction, I believe that the cell phone is the biggest cause of distracted driving. Whether it’s talking on the phone or texting,” says Officer Reyanin Brown, 10-year veteran with the Village of Saranac Lake, NY Police Department.

The NHTSA reports that cell phones alone account for six-million crashes each year. Even reading a text and taking your eyes off the road for five seconds, at 55 mph, is the equivalent of driving the length of a football field while blindfolded.

In recent years, the New York State Governor's Traffic Safety Committee (GTSC) has launched several campaigns to curb distracted driving. The educational and enforcement campaigns are designed to remind drivers that being distracted is not only a danger to themselves and their passengers, but also to other roadway users who share the road with them.  

In 2013, the state established 91 "Texting Zones" along state highways, encouraging drivers to wait until they can safely pull off the road to respond to a text message.

That same year, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed legislation that increased the point penalty and the license suspension and revocation periods for distracted driving.  

“If a citation is issued in New York, the cell phone penalty is five points on your driver’s license,” notes Officer Brown. “And if that is the reason for being stopped and there are other noticeable distractions, like a lane violation, that’s another three points. Following too closely would be another four points. Obviously, if you’re charged with all of those, the points add up and you could lose your license.”

Last year, the GTSC reported that the state committed over 5,300 hours of overtime and conducted 817 distracted driving details which resulted in almost 9,500 distracted driving tickets. More than 3,000 of which were for cell phone use, calls or texts, alone.

Other campaigns include state-wide communications and outreach, “April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month” and “Operation Hang Up.”

Officer Brown points out that amongst adult drivers, who use their cell phone while driving, there’s not that much of a difference between adult men and women.

In last year’s GTSC survey, it found that 61% of men who responded said they send or receive calls while driving and 64% of women reported the same. In the same state-wide survey, 20% of men and 17% of women said they “always” or “usually” use a hand-held device.

Women are slightly more likely to text than men. Thirty-eight percent of women responded to the GTSC survey saying that they do text and drive, while 35% of men reported sending or receiving texts while behind the wheel.

The real difference is in the driver’s age. A recent Pew report showed that young adults (ages 18 to 34) were most likely to text and drive… 59%. Nearly 40% of teen drivers said they text while driving.

“Three things that a driver can do to manage their distracted driving would be to get a Blue Tooth device while driving. Be mindful and aware of what’s around you and education. Educate yourself with some of the stats on what happens to drivers if they’re caught using their cell phone,” adds Officer Brown.

Another group that is greatly impacted by the hazards of distracted driving are law enforcement and emergency first responders. A 2019 Emergency Responder Safety Institute survey found that a whopping 71% of U.S. drivers said they took photos or videos when they saw an emergency vehicle on the side of the road responding to a fire or a crash, or simply making a routine traffic stop. Even worse, 16% of those who responded to the survey indicated that they have struck or nearly struck a first responder or emergency vehicle stopped on or near the road.

Officer Brown adds, “I think it’s very dangerous for law enforcement officers, EMTs, anyone on the scene of an accident or traffic stop. Drivers need to pay attention to what’s ahead of them because it’s required by law that they move over when they see the lights activated.”

There’s no simple fix to curb distracted driving. Education, awareness and zero tolerance law enforcement have all helped, however; the real responsibility lies with each individual driver.

But if Officer Brown could offer one piece of advice it would be “Driving requires 100% of your undivided attention. You could change your life, along with somebody else’s forever. Nothing is that important that it can’t wait until you find a safe place to pull over and stop or until you reach your destination.”

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