Distracted Driving from Cell Phone Use Has Become a Major US Epidemic
The growing number of cell phone users, while driving, has become a major epidemic in the US. As a cyclist, I’ve seen too many headlines of fellow cyclists dying at the hands of these drivers. But it’s not just cyclists, who are affected. The problem of distracted driving leads to countless and unnecessary deaths of pedestrians and other drivers too.
Below is an article I wrote this past September for the Greensboro News & Record on the growing number of distracted drivers, how it affects all of us, with some ideas of what we can do to hopefully put an end to this growing epidemic.
On September 2nd, the News & Record reported that distracted driving caused by cell phones is getting worse every year. Despite a major effort by police, the very dangerous practice is “infuriatingly widespread”.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported a sharp 7.2% increase in total traffic fatalities for 2015. This is the largest percentage increase in deaths in 49 years. On October 6th they announced an even worse 10% increase in fatalities for the first six months of 2016. The NHTSA estimates that almost 3,500 people were killed by distracted driving in 2015. Safety advocates say this vastly understates the problem because very few drivers admit to cell phone use. To check a non-cooperative driver’s cell phone, requires a search warrant. Many advocates believe texting is largely responsible for the accelerated death toll.
Forty six states have laws banning texting and sending or reading emails or other internet activity while driving. Fourteen states ban drivers from any hand held cell phone use at all.
North Carolina has no prohibition on cell phone use while driving, hand held or otherwise for adults, but texting while driving is banned. School bus drivers and drivers under 18 are totally banned from any vehicular cell phone use. In North Carolina, texting or Internet use while driving is a primary offense, which you can be stopped and ticketed for.
As I write this, just after the 9/11 anniversary, I’m stunned that more Americans were killed by distracted driving this year than in those terrorist attacks. In actuality, probably twice as many died from distracted driving.
People die in accidents for many reasons. Driver error, DUI and substance abuse, falling asleep at the wheel are three. In addition to driver issues, mechanical failure causes accidents. While lives could be saved by better driver education and mechanical maintenance, many of these deaths could not be prevented. The tragedy of distracted driving is that every death is 100% preventable by simply turning off the phone. Many thousands of people would be alive today if drivers just did that simple act.
Distracted driving is sky rocketing. In New York, tickets for texting soared from 9,000 in 2011 to 85,000 in 2015; a 945% increase.
So what can be done about it? Serious illness requires strong medicine. We need to alert the population by shocking and dramatic action that will get everyone talking and thinking about the issue. I propose that a first offender surrenders his cell phone and is fined $1,000. Further, his vehicle is confiscated until the fine is collected. His cell phone becomes state property. For a second offense he is fined $5,000 and must serve a mandatory week in state prison.
In addition, we must change the law so that any bodily injury caused by cell phone distraction is a manslaughter felony.
These changes would make it very clear to the public that distracted cell phone crashes are now being treated very seriously by NC police. You drive with your cell phone in use at your peril.
Are these penalties so severe that they wouldn’t be enforced? In some locations probably. But if enough pressure is brought to bear on police departments by citizens, the law would be enforced. The increased revenue would also be attractive.
Remember we are talking about totally preventable accidents that cause many thousand deaths. Imagine driving in your lane, being hit by a driver who crosses the white line while checking his buddy’s texting. To die for such banality is simply outrageous. Yet over 3,500 people die each year from these thoughtless acts.
The Mikado in Gilbert and Sullivan’s wonderful parody strives, “To make the punishment fit the crime.” These are very serious crimes and should be punished so severely that the activity stops. A drastic action? You bet! If you have better ideas, please share them with us. We must stop these totally needless deaths.
This article was written by Earle Bower, a bicycle safety expert and owner and founder of see me wear, a company which manufactures a high visibility cycling jersey to help cyclists be better seen on the roads and trails. This article originally appeared in the Greensboro News & Record on September 26, 2016.