Driven to distraction: Keep your eyes on the road

Driving instructors have been preaching it for decades — but with phones and other electronic devices providing more distractions than ever —Virginia officials plan to put more emphasis on curbing crashes caused by drivers not paying attention.

Video by JORDAN FIFER | THE ROANOKE TIMES





AS BIG-RIG DRIVER ENRIQUE GONZALEZ cruised down Christiansburg Mountain one day in June, traffic on Interstate 81 was moving at a good clip until drivers spotted a state trooper in the road clearing debris.

As police would later describe it, Gonzalez steered into the left lane looking for enough room to stop his truck loaded with melons and peppers.

When he realized he could not stop in time, he veered onto the outside shoulder, where his truck overturned and slammed into the trooper's parked cruiser as the trooper jumped to safety.

What distractions are cited in crashes?

On average, more than 13 percent of all crashes on Interstate 81 involve some type of distraction, according to a Roanoke Times analysis of five years of crash data. Click the graphic to see the most often-cited distractions in I-81 crashes.

SOURCE: Roanoke Times analysis of state data, 2004-08

The investigating officer charged Gonzalez with reckless driving for failing to maintain control and noted that Gonzalez had been using or talking on a cellphone just before the crash.

The contributing factor listed on the crash report was familiar: driver distraction — a national headache for traffic safety advocates.

In spite of the guidance driving instructors have given students for decades about focusing on the road, the high availability of go-anywhere electronic devices tempts drivers to do otherwise.

Cellphones, MP3 players, GPS navigation devices and Wi-Fi, the latest telecommunication technology to show up in vehicles, compete for the attention of drivers already battling roadside distractions and fatigue.

The consequences of behind-the-wheel electronics use and other forms of distraction are registering in higher rates of distraction-related fatal traffic crashes that run counter to broad trends of improving highway safety.

In 2008, the latest period for which statistics are available, driver distraction played a role in 16 percent of fatal wrecks versus 11 percent in 2004 nationwide. Some 5,870 people died in distraction-related crashes and more than half a million were injured in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Traffic experts say about 20 percent of all U.S. traffic crashes involve distracted driving, but consider that a rough estimate because of inconsistent data from individual states.

Virginia offers no statistical profile of distracted driving like it does for drunken driving and speeding, but the state has been collecting data.

Officials estimate that distracted driving played a role in 23 percent of wrecks statewide in 2009, according to spokeswoman Melanie Stokes at the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

Distracted-driving crashes caused three of the 26 traffic deaths on I-81 that year, Stokes said.

A Roanoke Times analysis of Virginia data from 2004-2008 shows that 18 people were killed in I-81 crashes caused at least in part by distracted driving. That's 15.7 percent of the interstate's fatalities. Overall, distracted driving contributed to 13 percent of crashes on I-81 during that period.

John Saunders, head of the Virginia Highway Safety Office, said officials are trying to devise a comprehensive national campaign to understand and address driver distraction.

"All of the states are kind of feeling around right now and trying to figure out how we are going to move from here," Saunders said.

Virginia steps up attack on distracted driving

Virginia will soon officially enter the hunt for new measures to combat distracted driving.

Saunders and other Virginia officials intend to classify driver distraction as a major threat in the state's federally required Highway Safety Plan for 2011, Stokes said.

As a result, planners will begin to give driver distraction elevated attention.

What's the law?

Electronic devices are providing more distractions than ever for drivers. Young drivers are having the hardest time minding the road. Drivers aged 20 and younger who were involved in fatal crashes were distracted 16 percent of the time in those wrecks versus about 11 percent for all age brackets. Here's recap of Virginia regulations related to using electronic devices and teen drivers

ELECTRONIC DEVICES

  • Cellphone usage (hand-held or hands-free) banned for bus drivers, except in an emergency.
  • Cellphone usage (hand-held or hands-free) banned for any driver 17 or younger while vehicle is moving, except in an emergency.
  • Manually typing or reading text and e-mail messages banned for all drivers.
  • Earphones, earbuds: prohibited while driving.
  • GPS navigation devices and MP3 players: not restricted.

TEEN DRIVER PASSENGER LIMITS

(Licensed drivers 17 or younger)

  • During the first year of driving: One person 17 or younger, family members excluded.
  • After one year of driving till age 18: Three people 17 or younger, family members excluded.
  • Drivers with a learner's permit: One person 17 or younger, family members excluded.

TEEN DRIVER CURFEW

  • Drivers 17 or younger with a learner's permit or license may not drive between midnight and 4 a.m.
  • Licensed drivers 17 or younger may drive during such times under these conditions: to and from work or a school-sponsored function, in an emergency, while responding to a call as a volunteer firefighter or rescue squad member, or while accompanied by an adult with a valid driver's license.

Sources: Drive Smart Virginia Inc.; Code of Virginia; Virginia Driver's Manual.

The safety plan is an accounting of highway safety problems and countermeasures designed to unify the efforts of the police, highway department, motor vehicle agency and emergency management agencies within one state and to attract federal grant funding.

As of June, 27 of 50 states had placed distracted driving in their plans but "we expect all states to do that eventually," said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association.

"A lot of people say, 'So what?' It's important because this is a road map for what the highway safety priorities are in the state."

Adkins said there is no new money coming down the pipeline, but states have federal highway safety grants that can be applied to such things as law enforcement campaigns against driver distraction.

Ideally, states would combat driver distraction with the same three-prong strategy of awareness campaigns, driver education and police work that is credited with providing a check against drunken driving and speeding and driving seat belt usage to a record high 82.3 percent in Virginia last year, Saunders said.

Driver distraction, however, is more difficult for police to observe or detect.

Officers can see the effects of distracted driving in twisted highway wreckage. But there is no reliable method to know if the driver was previously reaching for an object such as purse or CD or checking a text message. Relying on drivers to admit distraction is insufficient, police say, because many won't.

Most alarming: Young drivers, who are quick to embrace new technology, are having the hardest time minding the road.

Drivers aged 20 and younger who were involved in fatal crashes were distracted 16 percent of the time in those wrecks versus about 11 percent for all age brackets.

To try to reach young drivers, the Gwent, Wales, police department commissioned a video in which teen actors appear to have a horrendous (and fake) texting-while-driving crash. It was made available to schools and heavily viewed on the Internet.

Saunders doesn't see Virginia trying something like that. "The shock value passes quickly … and then those who watch a video routinely go back to their behavior," he said.

Virginia urges drivers to 'put it down'

Virginia's anti-distracted driving slogan was borrowed from the federal government: "Put It Down."

The state distributes educational information on the subject, posting tips such as "use technology sensibly" and "don't let your driving time become your down time" on the website of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

Still, like the advisories about exercise, diet and saving for retirement, a portion of the public hears the message and ignores it.

"While motorists know intellectually that driving while distracted is dangerous, they still do it," said a declaration that named April 28 Distracted Driving Awareness Day in Virginia for 2010.

In Virginia, a ban on typing or reading text or e-mail messages while driving took effect on July 1, 2009. Thirty states, Washington, D.C., and Guam ban texting while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

There is less consensus on how to regulate talking on phones. Eight states, Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands have banned hand-held cellphone use by drivers with mixed results.

Virginia allows drivers to have a phone conversation on any type of device, except drivers under 18, who may legally make an emergency call while driving but no other kind.

Police are watching drivers more closely for signs of distraction. Six years ago Virginia expanded crash documentation by asking officers to document driver distractions when possible in the aftermath of a wreck.

But officers are encumbered by a restriction when it comes to policing moving traffic. To cite a driver for texting or underage cellphone use while driving, an officer must first have a reason to stop or arrest the driver for some other violation .

John Moore , a Botetourt County doctor who takes I-81 to work, wrote an article urging fellow pediatricians to discuss texting and driving with teen patients.

"Every day you see people doing all sort of things in cars that they're not supposed to be doing," Moore said. "I try and get away from them myself."

Crash investigators define distracted driving as a driver either taking his eyes off the road, his hands off the wheel or his mind off his driving.

"While all distractions can endanger drivers' safety, texting is the most alarming because it involves all three types of distraction," according to a federal advisory.

In fact, the risk of crashing increases 23-fold for a texting driver, according to research by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

After two seconds with the eyes off the road — barely enough time to pick up a phone — a driver is dangerously distracted and often unable to react to the unexpected, according to VTTI's findings .

"It doesn't take very long, and especially on I-81," said Sheila "Charlie" Klauer , a research scientist at the institute who has watched hours of video of monitored drivers.

"When the speeds are 65 and typically greater than that, things happen even faster."

Monotony of long I-81 drive may cause wrecks

I-81 is a haven for distraction, said Lori Rice, who leads the Virginia Multi-disciplinary Crash Investigation Team at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

It is not uncommon for a driver navigating roads such as I-81 that are generally straight to let her guard down, she said. Boredom and monotony on long drives make focusing more difficult, she added.

Fatigue is the most often cited distraction on I-81 crash reports, according to a Roanoke Times analysis.

Some drivers may nod off for a split second in what she calls "microsleeps," or fall fully asleep. Or it might seems like a good time to pick up the phone, play music or have a bite to eat , she said.

That's when crashes happen.

Gonzalez, the trucker who was distracted by a cellphone, was lucky.

A driver for Ana's Transport of Panorama City, Calif. , and resident of Los Angeles, he is charged with reckless driving in Montgomery County General District Court, a misdemeanor. Although the produce truck sustained $100,000 in damage, Gonzalez was uninjured. Ana's Transport could not be reached for comment.

The quick-footed state trooper who was picking up a tire shred darted across the shoulder and over an embankment ahead of the careening truck, which plowed into the rear of his cruiser causing $6,100 in damage.

tips for distracted drivers

Driving Tips

Before starting out

  • Fasten your safety belt, adjust mirrors, set climate control and turn on the music if you intend to listen.
  • Ensure everyone else is belted or in a safety seat and that all objects are stowed.

Attention

  • Keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the steering wheel, ideally with the left hand at 8 and right hand at 4 as if the wheel were a clock.

Electronic devices

  • Avoid using cell phones or wireless devices.

Technique

  • Look four or five vehicles ahead.
  • Check mirrors every 10 seconds.
  • Let tailgaters pass.
  • Follow other vehicles at a safe distance.
  • Don't ride beside another vehicle -- leave yourself an out.

Braking

  • If you have anti-lock brakes, depress and hold the pedal down firmly to stop quickly and don't pump the brakes.
  • If you have conventional brakes, brake till just before the wheels lock, let up slightly and then brake again.

Speed

  • Slow down for bad weather or heavy traffic. Otherwise, obey the speed limit.

Source: Tip sheet from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

"Driver inattention puts people in bad situations that sometimes are very difficult to recover from," police Sgt. Paul Watts said.

Federal officials have staked out the goal: no distracted driving.

"We will not rest until we stop it," reads a message on the website of the USDOT.

Top transportation leaders endorsed the creation of a Texas-based group, FocusDriven , whose mission is to fight distracted driving. The organization has among other things created a victim photo gallery online. There isn't a picture of anyone killed on I-81 in Virginia at this point.

Police, lawmakers and safety advocates want to keep it that way. And so they repeat the message that by now is familiar.

"Pay attention. Keep your mind on your driving, not on something else," said Robert Young , owner of a Roanoke towing, sales and repair business.

He sees the evidence of inattention as he removes vehicles that have crashed into guardrails, rocks, sign poles, bridges and ditches. His company cleans up three I-81 wrecks a week.

"A lot of cars don't pay attention to where they're going. People have their minds on other things," he said.

"They're playing with the radio. There's something going on on the side of the road. They're looking at it. Or they drop something on the floor. They're looking down. People eating and get choked. Driver falls asleep."

Roadside distractions, including wreck cleanup, are the second-most-cited distraction in I-81 crashes.

Vehicles have struck Young's parked tow truck 19 times while he was standing at the controls recovering a disabled vehicle. Vehicles have struck him at accident scenes twice, he said.

Polls have found overwhelming public support — above 80 percent — for more laws and more educational messages to rein in the risk, according to the backers of Distracted Driving Day.

Hands-free may not be a one-stop solution

Hoping to debate all possible next steps, officials will brainstorm at the 2010 Distracted Driving Summit in Washington on Sept. 21.

"By getting the best minds together, I believe we can figure out how to get people to put down their phones and pay attention to the road," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.

Two studies cited by FocusDriven say a driver on the phone is four times as likely to wreck as one who is not.

Virginia Tech found that cellphone use is somewhat less risky than that, though poses some risk. However, some analysts point to evidence that hand-held phones are just as dangerous as hands-free phones.

Talking by either method, "your mind is not there," said Saunders, the state's road safety chief. "I'm not sure that hands-free is the answer."

Indeed, no one in California thinks the hand-held cellphone ban has solved the problem kiddingly referred to as DWY — driving while yakking.

The California Highway Patrol said in June — two years after the law took effect — that cellphones remain "the leading, identifiable, contributing factor to inattentive driver crashes" in that state.

Virginia backed away from new phone laws

Virginia began to go down the same road as California, only to turn back.

During the 2010 General Assembly session, state Sen. Thomas Norment, R-Williamsburg, proposed a law banning driving while talking on a hand-held cellphone in Virginia.

Such a law would allow talking and driving with a hands-free adapter.

After adoption by the Senate, the measure was tabled in a House committee last winter.

Del. Jim Shuler, D-Blacksburg, cast one of the deciding committee votes that killed the proposal for now.

Earlier this month, Shuler couldn't recall the reason for his vote, but said he generally favors trusting people to practice common sense when they drive. Hands-free equipment is widely available, he said.

Hand-held or hands-free, Shuler said he knows that cellphone calls distract his mind from driving because after he hangs up the few calls he makes from the road, he sometimes cannot recall driving the ground his vehicle covered during the call.

Yet, he opposes banning cellphones for drivers.

It is not the job of the General Assembly to restrict every possible driver distraction, he said. The General Assembly did ban texting for all drivers and restricted cellphone use for young drivers, he said.

If drivers aren't prepared to pay attention to the road on their own, and if new laws are not the answer to compel attention, what will arrest the distracted driving trend?

Klauer, of VTTI, said she believes the tipping point will come not when more laws are passed or police get tougher but when drivers reach acceptance — the belief that distraction is truly dangerous.

Toward that end, Virginia Tech is overseeing research that monitors actual drivers in their own vehicles through attached cameras and sensors.

Not only electronics use, but eating, grooming, talking to passengers and reaching for objects — driver distractions that have been around for years — are coming in for close examination during the Strategic Highway Research Program 2 Naturalistic Driving Study.

Drivers of more than 2,000 specially equipped vehicles will go about their usual affairs in Tampa, Fla.; central Indiana; Durham, N.C.; Erie County, N.Y.; central Pennsylvania; and Seattle , while equipment records how — and how well — they drive.

The institute also has recently completed a teen-driver naturalistic study using both public streets and the research test bed, or Smart Road, at Virginia Tech.

The institute conducted the first large-scale naturalistic driving study, which tracked 100 vehicles over 2 million miles and produced evidence that nearly 80 percent of wrecks involve driver inattention — distraction, fatigue or looking away — within three seconds before impact.

When facts like this sink in, it will create a culture of safety in which driver behavior could change on its own, Klauer said.

Justin Collins, a Botetourt County college student and the three-time president of a teen safe-driving club, said he is persuaded by both statistics and logic of the importance of paying attention.

A recent incident drove the point home.

While leaving a fishing derby at Smith Mountain Lake in 2009, he glanced a bit too long at a tailgater in his rearview mirror.

"When I looked back up, it was too late," he said.

He drove off the road and crashed to the bottom of a 30-foot embankment.

He was not seriously injured, in part because he was wearing a seat belt, but he had to face a charge of failure to maintain proper control .

Collins describes himself as a more alert driver now and safety belt advocate.

Wrecking, he said, offers "a huge shock value to your own self. It's like, 'Man I didn't expect this. I need to get myself together so this never happens again.' "

Matt Chittum and Belinda Harris contributed to this report.

Updated: Sunday, August 29, 2010 | About this series | Credits
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