On an October day last year, 18-year-old Alexis Patlan stood at a busy intersection observing cars driving by. It was morning rush hour just west of Garden Grove’s Santiago High School. She stood with one task – log distracted drivers.
The hourlong survey, part a larger awareness campaign with schools, yielded troubling results. The majority of motorists observed were fumbling with their cellphones, downing breakfast, or both. One standout offender was “eating a doughnut with one hand and on the cellphone with the other hand,” recalled Patlan.
Despite years of warnings about the potentially fatal consequences of using mobile devices behind the wheel, distracted driving jumped significantly in the past year, according to a newly released state traffic safety study.
The increase comes as law enforcement agencies face added challenges in catching violators, and experts say the upward trend is being exacerbated, in part, by quickly evolving mobile devices as well as a growing obsession with texting and social media.
“They have to be in touch with whatever is going on in their lives,” said Huntington Beach resident Howard Mauer, who lost his daughter, Deanna, to a texting motorist five years ago. “The phone is everything.”
Researchers found that 7.6 percent of all drivers observed in the traffic safety study engaged in some type of distracted driving by way of electronic device – up from 5.4 percent a year ago, according to the report, released this month by the California Office of Traffic Safety.
The annual study relies on observations in which researchers can see inside a vehicle long enough and clearly enough to determine if and how the driver is using a mobile device, said agency spokesman Chris Cochran.
The jump this year in distracted driving observations was expected, he said, in part because motorists are logging more miles and smartphone features are quickly evolving.
“Technology got us here real quick,” Cochran said.
County-level measures of the problem are considered less reliable than regional or statewide figures, but year-over-year figures suggest distracted driving peaked in Orange County three years ago.
The state traffic safety study, which has been released annually since 2011, also found:
• Holding the phone to the ear, which is a traffic offense, was observed most often in Southern California, at nearly 4 percent of all documented incidents, compared with central California, at 2 percent, and Northern California, at 1.4 percent.
• Among teen and young adult drivers, 6.5 percent were seen manipulating their hand-held devices, up from 3.5 percent a year ago.
Although observed distracted-driving activity rose statewide and stayed fairly level in Orange County, the number of citations issued to motorists for phone use or texting has taken a major dive, California Highway Patrol data show.
In 2015, CHP officers issued just over 6,800 such tickets in Orange County. This was more than 40% drop compared with 2012. Statewide, the figure fell 45 percent in the same period.
“I’d like to tell you it’s because of our efforts,” said Officer Tom Joy, a CHP spokesman. But he said the latest state figures on distracted driving feed his doubt.
Joy, of the CHP’s Westminster station, said citation totals may be down because issuing distracted-driving tickets can be tricky.
Holding a phone to your ear while driving is a surefire way to get a citation. But using GPS navigation aides while driving has been deemed OK by the courts, Joy said. That has become a common excuse when officers pull someone over for distracted driving, he said.
Another challenge: Texters tend to be stealthy. Messages can be written and read below the steering wheel – and immediately stopped when drivers spot a police unit.
“It’s harder to go after people” who are texting, Joy said.
Nationwide in 2013, more than 3,100 people died in crashes involving distracted drivers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Drivers talking on mobile phones are four times more likely to crash, according to the National Safety Council. Drivers who are texting are 23 times more likely to crash.
So, given the research showing the clear dangers of mobile phone use at the wheel, why do people do it?
Cochran said it boils down to behavior patterns that have proven to be strongly resistant to change. The majority of motorists tell surveyors they never use their phones behind the wheel, he said. But a small, growing share of drivers admit they do it all the time. They do so even though they know the legal and safety risks, he added.
Distracted drivers fall into two main categories, he said. There are those who wrongly believe they are capable of multitasking while driving. Cochran calls this “driver arrogance.” And there are those who can’t resist the urge to take the next call and stay connected to friends or family members. He calls those “driver opportunists.”
Cochran and others compare the current distracted-motorist problem to law enforcement’s earlier challenges in reducing cases of driving under the influence and failing to wear seat belts.
He noted that the state’s largest annual outlay for distracted-driving awareness programs was $1 million. It would take at least $10 million a year for an effective program, he said.
As a result, some corporations, most notably AT&T, have helped pick up the slack. The mobile carrier has spent millions since 2010 on its “It Can Wait” campaign, according to company spokeswoman Meredith Red.
The company also has developed a free app, AT&T DriveMode, that silences incoming text messages. It turns on when a vehicle reaches 15 mph and is available to customers of all mobile phone carriers. Other carriers and app makers have developed similar technology, though it’s unclear how effective and widely used they have been.
Mauer said distracted-driving awareness campaigns and enforcement efforts have all “fallen short.”
Deanna Mauer died after a woman, who had sent several text messages, rear-ended the 23-year-old’s car at 85 mph.
The driver was sentenced to six years in prison, the maximum term available.
Last summer, Deanna Mauer’s parents, Dawn and Howard, self-funded a billboard overlooking the 22 at Harbor Boulevard. It read: “Someone texting & driving killed our daughter. Your text can wait.”
They hoped carmakers, phone companies and others would contribute to fund a dozen signs to educate drivers about the dangers of texting and driving. That didn’t happen, adding to the Mauers’ frustration.
“There’s nothing out there that has made an impact” on curbing distracted driving, Howard Mauer said.
Story via OC Register: http://www.ocregister.com/articles/driving-721376-distracted-drivers.html