National statistics on distracted driving from distraction.gov:
• 10 percent of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crash. This age group has the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted.
• Drivers in their 20s make up 27 percent of the distracted drivers in fatal crashes.
At any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, a number that has held steady since 2010.
• Five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting. When traveling at 55 miles per hour, that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field blindfolded.
• Headset cell phone use is not substantially safer than hand-held use.
• A quarter of teens respond to a text message once or more every time they drive. 20 percent of teens and 10 percent of parents admit that they have extended, multi message text conversations while driving.
A bright orange Kansas Department of Transportation dump truck was trolling up and down Great Bend’s busy 10th Street late Thursday morning and early afternoon.
Such trucks were a common sight this past winter as they spread sand and salt to make roadways safe for motorists after blizzards. Thursday, there was no bad weather in the forecast, but motorists’ safety was still the mission of those in its cab.
With KDOT employee Keith Burton at the wheel, a Kansas Highway Patrol trooper rode shotgun and undercover. The trooper’s objective – spot texting drivers.
“The number one complaint we receive from the general public is about distracted drivers,” said KHP Lt. Steve Billinger. He was joined in the endeavor by troopers Dave Jacobs, Mike Farmer and Mike Robinson.
In cooperation with the KDOT, the KHP and other law enforcement agencies are conducting overtime enforcement and supporting an advertising campaign running through April 27 urging Kansans to “Ditch the distractions, not the car. Just drive.” The effort opened with a news conference in Topeka last Friday.
“It’s a hard thing to enforce,” Billinger said of the state law banning texting while driving. Drivers can easily put a cell phone away at the first sight of a marked law enforcement vehicle.
Hence, the undercover operation Thursday. For a two-hour span, the trooper in the truck looked for violators who wouldn’t know he was an officer.
When he found one, he would call ahead to other KHP offices in their cruisers who would pull the driver over and issue a citation.
A total of 17 tickets were handed out during the special enforcement, Billinger said. Citations for texting while driving were issued and warnings were also given to those being distracted by phones.
Some were citations issued for a combination of multiple violations, ranging from texting to running a stop sign.
As for the joint KHP/KDOT “just drive” campaign, it involves 20 law enforcement agencies across the state, said Lt. Josh Kellerman, state public information officer for the KHP. “We just hope to make a dent in this.”
A grant to KDOT from the National Highway Traffic Safety Association funded the needed overtime and other expenses for the state effort.
Similar enforcement campaigns are taking place nationally.
Gary Warner, public resource officer for the KHP, said troopers, police officers and sheriff’s deputies across the state are cracking down on the anti texting law.
“When you text while driving, you take your eyes off the road, hands off the wheel and mind off the task of driving,” Warner said. “That puts everybody’s lives in danger, and no one has the right to do that.”
In addition, it can be expensive as a texting violation comes with a $60 fine. Factoring in court costs, and the ticket can cost nearly $200.
While younger drivers are more prone to text while at the wheel, Kellerman said drivers of all ages are caught in the act.
“There are hundreds of distractions,” Kellerman said. He’s even seen drivers filing their finger nails.
But, there is no general law against distracted driving. But there is against texting.
A personal story
For Julie Breitenstein, distracted driving changed her life, and that of her entire family.
“When you are behind the wheel of a vehicle, no text message is so important that it cannot wait,” Breitenstein said last Friday at the State Capitol in Topeka. “When you are driving, every text message can wait.”
Breitenstein spoke at the news conference announcing the statewide campaign. Also on the program was her son, Austin, who was incapacitated in a 2009 crash in which he was texting and driving.
Accompanying Austin was his companion dog, Macie. Before the crash, Austin was a popular student with a vibrant family and social life.
“Today, Macie is Austin’s best friend,” Breitenstein said.
Paul Atchley, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, preceded Breitenstein on the program and spoke about the growing aspect of distracted driving as a cause of vehicle crashes.
“Distracted driving is underreported as a cause of crashes because, unlike impaired driving, it is difficult to legally establish and challenging to prove,” Atchley said.
Crash report investigations often require additional evidence and resources, Atchley said, so distraction often is not reported as a contributing circumstance when it may well have been a key factor.