Distracted driving likely in more crashes than reported, police say

Distracted driving likely in more crashes than reported, police say

As the Ohio State Highway Patrol cruiser followed it on the rural road, the white car could be seen drifting a little across the center line before going back to the right onto the berm and through snow, the driver barely swerving back to the left in time to avoid striking a utility pole.

But this close call was only a prelude. After drifting back over the center line again briefly, the car then swerves back over onto the berm. It plows through snow and bounces just before slamming into another electric pole. The car’s rear, rising in the air, makes a quarter clockwise turn landing perpendicular to the road. The pole snaps at its base, falls and lands on the car’s roof, with a second break about two-thirds up the pole, wires still holding the top of the pole vertical.

The trooper, from the highway patrol’s Delaware post, runs to the car.

“Hold on, hold on. You alright?,” he asks the unseen driver.

“Be careful. There’s live power lines…OK?” he tells her.

The highway patrol posted this footage from the cruiser’s dashcam, shot along Route 315, on its Facebook page on Feb. 10. Although details are not provided, according to the post, it was determined the woman had been driving while distracted.

April has been National Distracted Driving Awareness Month and police say distracted driving is probably a bigger problem than statistics indicate.

“I feel it’s a serious issue,” said Streetsboro Police Lt. Rich Polivka. “I would believe that more of our crashes than are admitted to are due to distracted driving. That’s my feeling.”

The Ohio State Highway Patrol says there were more than 66,000 crashes statewide in the past five years that were attributed to distracted driving and 212 people lost their lives. According to the National Transportation Safety Administration, 3,142 people died in distracted driving crashes nationwide in 2019.

In Portage County, fatal crashes are examined by the Fatal Crash Review Board, a  part of Portage County Safe Communities, itself a program of the Portage County Health District. Lynette Blasiman, project director for Portage County Safe Communities, said that typically, the official cause of fatal crashes in the county is often listed as assured clear distance ahead or driving left of center or off the road, but distracted driving could very well be an underlying cause.

“Often when we see those things, distracted driving is at least suspected or a possibility,” she said.

The highway patrol says distractions can be anything that results in a driver taking his or her eyes  off the road, hands off the wheel or takes the driver’s mind off driving. Texting is an example that can encompass all three types of distractions, the highway patrol says. Sending or receiving a text message takes a driver’s eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, the equivalent of driving the length of a football field when traveling at 55 mph.

The Ohio General Assembly passed House Bill 95 in October 2018. The new law broadened what is considered distracted driving and increased the fine if it was a contributing factor in committing a driving violation. State law makes it a primary offense for drivers younger than 18 to use any electronic wireless communication devices while driving, meaning police can pull them over just for that, without another offense being committed.

According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, more than half of teen drivers reported in a survey using a cell phone while driving and more than one in 4 reported typing or sending a text message while driving during the previous 30 days.

It is also illegal for drivers 18 and over to text while driving, but it is a secondary offense, meaning they can only be cited if they have committed another violation, and state law does not bar adults from using electronic devices for any other purposes. 

This could change, however. Gov. Mike DeWine announced in  February that he would include provisions in this year’s executive budget proposal that would strengthen state distracted driving laws.

“With limited exceptions, the Hands-Free Ohio provisions in Governor DeWine's budget proposal will make driving while handling any electronic wireless device a primary offense for adult drivers and will increase fines for drivers who habitually use devices while driving,” says DeWine’s announcement. “In cases where a driver using a device causes serious injury or death, the penalties will mirror those of drunken driving.”

Kent police say that despite reduced traffic enforcement due to the pandemic, officers issued 50 citations for distracted driving in 2020.

Streetsboro police say that from the beginning of 2016 until this past April 15, city police issued 18 distracted driving citations. During that same period, there were 101 crashes during which distracted driving was believed to have been a factor, but a citation was not necessarily issued.

But police say that the numbers likely only tell part of the story. For one thing, unless a driver actually admits to having been distracted, it can be very difficult to make that determination.

“I suspect that a great number of the traffic crashes that we deal with are caused by distracted driving somehow in some way,” said Kent Police Lt. Mike Lewis. “A lot of people aren’t likely to tell you, ‘Yeah, I wasn’t paying attention. I was texting and that’s why I struck the vehicle in front of me.’ We strongly suspect that, but we can’t prove it and if we can’t prove that, we can’t charge them.”

Polivka said that another complication is that while police can stop juvenile drivers for, say, talking on the phone without any other violations, this depends on the officer somehow knowing that the driver is a juvenile prior to the stop. Often, the officer has to go by appearance and if it turns out the driver is an adult doing something other than texting, the officer has to let the driver go, perhaps with just a warning.

Under state law, which is mirrored in the Kent and Streetsboro city traffic codes, distracted driving can be added on to other charges or citations as an “enhanced” penalty with an additional fine of $100 added to other fines. This additional fine can be eliminated if the motorist successfully completes a distracted driver safety course, though other fines will still apply.

And as many municipalities do, both cities also include in their traffic codes a “full time and attention” violation requiring drivers to use full-time attention while driving. A violation is a minor misdemeanor for first-time offenders, with penalties increasing for repeat offenders.

“Even 10 years ago, if someone told me, ‘Yeah, I was busy eating and I dropped my cheeseburger on my lap and I didn’t see the car stopped in front of me and I rear ended them,’” said Polivka, “a lot of times that may be a charge of assured clear distance ahead. But in reality, if the person told you they weren’t paying attention, you could have charged them with that, too.”

Lewis said the Kent Police Department made it a goal for 2020 to reduce distracted driving, which included all officers completing a training course to better educate themselves and others about the risks of distracted driving.

In a January 2020 departmental memo, Police Chief Nicholas Shearer wrote, “As you will read in this memo, distracted driving contributes to a significant amount of traffic accidents and is a dangerous behavior. With our mission, vision, and goals in mind, we need to take more time to address this issue to provide for the safety of all citizens and visitors in our city.”

Shearer directed officers to cite under the full time and attention ordinance as much as possible, fully investigate in crashes whether distracted driving was a factor, and add distracted driving as an enhanced offense whenever possible.

Lewis said the pandemic forced a cutback in overall traffic enforcement, but the department now wants to get back on track.

“Chief Shearer wants to reinstate this safety initiative to reduce distracted driving,” said Lewis.

But Lewis also said that the public could help in the effort.

“If everybody had to put down their cell phones when they were driving or weren’t messing with the stereo or eating or drinking coffee or whatever the case may be, I think we would definitely see the a reduced number of traffic crashes,” he said.

Reporter Jeff Saunders can be reached at jsaunders@recordpub.com.

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