The National Safety Council released preliminary data about traffic fatalities in 2015 and the news is not good. From January to June, 18,600 traffic deaths were reported throughout the United States. Through June of 2014, 16,400 deaths had been reported. That marks a 14 percent increase in motor vehicle deaths so far this year. It puts 2015 on pace to be the most deadly year on U.S. roadways since 2007.
April is Distracted Driving Awareness month and New Jersey police are participating. Distracted driving is just the latest target of public service campaigns designed to improve traffic safety. The latest national campaign, "U Text, U Drive, U Pay" specifically targets a common distracted driving concern: the text message. Texting is far from the only type of distracted driving, however. In fact, it may represent only a small percentage of the distraction that drivers are succumbing to, with deadly results. The crackdown by New Jersey police will focus on all types of distracted driving, including texting behind the wheel.
Perspective and wisdom are in short supply all over. Shortsighted behavior is not restricted to one age group. There are, however, things that seem like they could only be connected with teenagers. A recent study revealed the positive news that teens are showing a greater awareness of the dangers of texting while driving. It also revealed that teens are engaging in activities such as changing clothes, doing homework and putting in contact lenses while driving. It might be a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees.
What constitutes distracted driving? Most states ban reckless driving and have the power to give speeding tickets for traveling at a rate of speed too fast for the conditions. Texting while driving is now banned in 44 states. But what other behaviors represent a dangerous level of distraction? Are police citing drivers who are distracted by something other than a text message? Some law enforcement agencies have taken to penalizing drivers for a wider range of distracted driving than is mentioned in texting bans.
Surveys conducted by State Farm have shown that the number of people making cell phone calls while driving has actually dropped since 2009. Unfortunately, drivers have replaced calls with smart phone activities such as checking e-mail, surfing the Internet, checking Facebook or accessing Twitter. Over that time period, the percentage of people who text and drive has remained steady despite the proliferation of laws banning the practice. The total percentage of people using their cell phones in some way while driving has gone up in each of the past six years.
Some behaviors are harder to control than others. Despite increasingly harsh penalties for DUI, drinking and driving still kills more than 10,000 people every year. Part of the problem is that many people do not believe they will be caught driving drunk. Mothers Against Drunk Driving estimates that drivers who are arrested for DUI have driven drunk 80 times before getting caught. The problems surrounding distracted driving are even more severe. Not only do people not fear getting caught, many refuse to recognize the danger of the behavior in the first place.
General Motors may be the latest auto manufacturer to look to technology to reduce the number of distracted driving and fatigued driving accidents. GM has purchased tracking devices that analyze the faces and eyes of drivers. Similar technology is used in the commercial trucking industry to identify when a truck driver's eyes are not on the road, either due to a distraction or to drowsiness. GM's initial investment is for 500,000 of these devices. The company has not yet released the details of which vehicles will receive the devices or of how they will be used.
New Jersey law prohibits the use of handheld cellular phones while driving. Anyone caught talking or texting on a handheld cell phone while driving faces a fine. As of this month, the fines issued for this form of distracted driving have a little more bite to them. A first time offense of handheld cell phone use behind the wheel will net a fine between $200 and $400. Second-time offenders can be fined $400 to $600. Every offense beyond the second can be penalized with a $600 to $800 fine, as well as suspension of your driver's license for 90 days and three points off your license. It remains to be seen whether the increase in fines will encourage greater enforcement of the distracted driving law.