Despite laws, drivers still distracted
Published 8:08 am, Thursday, November 19, 2009
They come in all shapes and sizes, from the harried mom driving her car while coordinating pickup times for her children, cell phone nestled against her ear, to the teen clandestinely texting his buddies from the phone positioned under his steering wheel; from the frazzled worker eating his lunch on the go, to the other frazzled worker applying her makeup while negotiating a left-hand turn.
They are the distracted drivers. They are among us. They are us. According to many experts, we are more dangerous than ever.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver, and more than half a million were injured. The agency also reported that, on any given day in 2008, more than 800,000 vehicles were driven by someone using a hand-held cell phone.
Locally, experts said driving while distracted is a problem in Connecticut as well, despite a statewide law passed in 2005 that banned the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. Those who violate the cell phone law face a $100 penalty.
Rep. Richard Roy, D-Milford, who pushed for the law for several years, said he's well aware that many people willfully violate it nearly every day. "For some people, it's just become habit," he said of cell phone use. "It disturbs me that people still do that." Photographers dispatched by the Connecticut Post, a Hearst Connecticut Media Group publication, had no trouble spotting dozens of drivers at various intersections yakking away on their cell phones, one of whom is captured in the photos used for this story.
Because the Connecticut Department of Transportation doesn't include distracted driving as a factor when compiling accident data, state officials were unaware how many fatal crashes in the state involved inattentive motorists. But state DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said distracted driving is as big a safety issue here as in the rest of the country. He said the problem has a lot to do with modern culture, and the contemporary habit of multi-tasking -- even if one of the tasks in question requires one's full attention.
"I think there's something to be said for the pace at which we live our lives day to day," Nursick said. "The lifestyles we live have sped up considerably, and that has spilled into the area of operating motor vehicles." Some efforts are being made to increase awareness about the dangers of driving while distracted. For example, Nursick said, the state is in the process of changing the way it collects accident data, to include driver distraction as a possible factor. "Obviously, this is something we want to be able to quantify in our state," he said.
In addition, the state has applied for several hundred thousand dollars in grant funding from the Highway Traffic Safety Administration for enforcement, education and awareness programs that would all focus on curtailing distracted driving. Also, the Connecticut State Police plan to focus on distracted driving during its annual holiday enforcement efforts.
But many experts agreed that more needs to be done -- though no one has a simple solution.
Like Nursick, Roy thinks that driver distraction is the result of the fast-paced world we live in. In fact, he said, as we've put a higher premium on speed and productivity, we've put less of an emphasis on motor-vehicle safety in general. "Drivers 50 years ago were much more conscious of the speed limit, much more conscious of traffic lights," Roy said. "People as a whole were much more law-abiding."
State Police Lt. J. Paul Vance said the cell phone law is "well enforced," pointing to statistics showing that tickets for violating the law have increased year to year. In 2006, state police gave out 2,969 such tickets, compared with 6,252 in 2007 and 10,818 in 2008.
However, statistics from the state Judicial Branch showed that the number of cell phone violations passing through the state's court system between January and June of this year was 17,093 -- a decrease from the same time period last year, when 19,863 such cases passed through the judicial system.
It's unclear what all this means, but Vance is optimistic that the law is having an impact on the state's drivers. "Have we reached 100 percent compliance? No," he said. "(But) it's definitely changing behaviors."
Roy agreed that the law has made some difference, as many have switched to hands-free devices as a result of the legislation. But there are still people who don't obey the law.
One problem might be that many people don't see talking on a cell phone as a "crime," in the traditional sense, said Charles Lieberman, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven and a former member of the New York police department. In fact, he said "driving and speaking on a cell phone isn't a crime -- it's a violation of an administrative code." Thus, people might not take it seriously.
Another problem is that enforcement of the law isn't consistent from municipality to municipality, Roy said. In urban areas with higher crime rates, enforcement of the cell phone law isn't as heavy as it is in more rural and suburban areas -- but that's probably as it should be, Roy said. "If someone gets shot, you want the police there," he said. "You don't want them to be giving out tickets to someone using a phone."
Roy said he isn't sure how to get more people to obey the cell phone law. Perhaps what's needed is something radical, like printing the names of everyone caught violating the rule, he said.
"If people are embarrassed about seeing their names in print like that, that's something that might be considered along the line," Roy said.
Lieberman, meanwhile, suggested the penalty for violating the cell phone law should be steeper. He said most people are motivated to obey laws by one of two factors.
"People are only going to obey a law if they believe the law is correct or if the penalty is strong enough to outweigh the benefits," he said.
Roy said he's heard that argument before, that raising the penalty for violating the cell phone law will urge people to think twice about using the devices. He's also heard from police officers who have said they'd be more likely to dole out tickets, as opposed to warnings, if the penalty was lower. It's hard to know what the right answer is, he said.
Vance suggested that it could be as simple as the passage of time. He said it sometimes takes people a while to comply with certain laws, particularly those that require them to alter habits that have been ingrained over the years. For instance, when the seatbelt law first went into effect, many people disregarded that as well, but, over time, the bulk of state drivers complied with it.
Nursick, meanwhile, said it's important to remember that cell phone use, while problematic, isn't the only activity stealing the attention of the state's drivers. "Distracted driving has always been an issue, predating electronic gadgetry," he said, adding that, even before cell phones, drivers were distracted by things like eating, fiddling with car radios and even arguing with fellow passengers.
No matter what action legislators, state officials and law enforcement officers take, Nursick said, the responsibility for safer driving ultimately rests with the motorists themselves. "It's the driver's responsibility to operate that vehicle safely," he said. "You're looking for folks to step up and be adults about this."