Articles Posted in Distracted Driving

A new law that came into effect in California this month is likely to be closely watched here in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere around the country. The wide-ranging legislation goes “further than most states in prohibiting the use of cellphones, banning drivers from even holding mobile devices while driving,” according to the New York Times.

The newspaper describes it as a legislative attempt to get ahead of the technology curve. “The law builds on earlier legislation that prevented drivers from talking and texting but did not prohibit them from streaming video, for instance, or using apps like Facebook and Twitter,” the paper reports. It notes that “late last month a family filed a lawsuit against Apple over a 2014 accident in which a driver using FaceTime crashed into the family’s car, killing their 5-year-old daughter.”

It may seem obvious that a law designed to prevent texting would also cover the use of Skype or FaceTime, but that is no excuse for legislators failing to tighten up the language of the relevant statutes. For example, here in Oregon the law governing distracted driving, ORS 811.507 (see link below), defines a “mobile communications device” as “a text messaging device or a wireless, two-way communications device designed to receive and transmit voice or text communication.” Would that definition cover the latest generation of the iPod Touch, a device that can’t make phone calls or send text messages but can surf the internet and make video connections? In a world where wi-fi networks are rapidly spreading around cities and towns this is no longer a theoretical question.

A newly published report from SafeKids, an organization which regular readers know I have long supported, takes many unsettling facts about teens and cars out of the realm of hearsay. The best way to prevent teen car-related deaths and injuries is to know how and why they occur in the first place. That makes this report essential reading for every Oregon parent.

The report summary begins with an uncomfortable figure: 2138… the number of teens killed in car crashes in 2014 (the most recent year for which full data is available). On the positive side, it notes that “from 1994 to 2013, the rate of teen drivers killed actually decreased by 61 percent” adding that this two decades of progress “demonstrates the effectiveness of prevention efforts by government, industry, the medical community and nonprofits in passing graduated licensing laws, engineering safer cars and raising public awareness about risky behaviors.”

The report goes on to state that “2014, however, saw the death rate begin to increase again and early estimates for 2015 suggest that may continue.” Its main prescription is more of the kind of education and public outreach that has been so effective over time. We have all heard the public information campaigns, but it still needs to be said, and repeated often: avoid distracted driving, don’t overload the car, don’t speed and, perhaps most importantly: always buckle up and never drink and drive.

An article published this week in the New York Times outlines what many of us have long suspected: distracted driving, the paper writes, “by just about any measure, appears to be getting worse. Americans confess in surveys that they are still texting while driving, as well as using Facebook and Snapchat and taking selfies. Road fatalities, which had fallen for years, are now rising sharply, up roughly 8 percent in 2015 over the previous year, according to preliminary estimates.”

It quotes the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration saying “radical change requires radical ideas,” and then goes on to offer some striking examples. The most unique, proposed by legislators in New York “is to give police officers a new device that is the digital equivalent of a Breathalyzer – a roadside test called the Textalyzer.”

As the Times outlines, an officer would collect phones from drivers and passengers and use the device “to tap into (each phone’s) operating system to check for recent activity.” The answers provided by the machine would determine not only whether the driver had been texting but also whether he or she had violated New York’s hands-free laws (the oldest in the nation) in any other way. “Failure to hand over a phone could lead to the suspension of a driver’s license, similar to the consequences for refusing a Breathalyzer,” the paper reports.

Pedestrian deaths around the country rose sharply last year, according to data compiled by the Governors Highway Safety Association and recently published by CityLab, a blog that is part of The Atlantic magazine. The news is troubling, and perhaps even a little counter-intuitive and should prompt officials at every level to look more closely with how we design our roads and streets.

The group “estimates that the number of pedestrians killed in traffic increased 10 percent from 2014 to 2015 in the US. That number, based on preliminary data reported by all 50 states and the District of Columbia, is in line with a longer-term trend: From 2009 to 2014, pedestrian fatalities increased by 19 percent, even as total traffic deaths declined over that same period.”

According to the GHSA the highest pedestrian fatality rate is 3.55 per 100,000 people in New Mexico. Minnesota is the safest state for pedestrians with only 0.27 fatalities per 100,000. Oregon, at 1.44, comes in a little better than the national average of 1.53 while Washington State is significantly better at 1.06. (all figures are for 2014)

I have often written about the fact that we tend to think of distracted driving as something that teens and 20-somethings are especially prone to, despite a growing body of evidence identifying this as a problem that affects every age group.

The latest reminder that this is not just a young person’s issue comes from Greenhouse Management magazine. Under the headline “It Can Wait – Even the Job” the magazine offers some pointed advice: “business owners, CEOs, managers and other figures in the corporate world are slower on the uptake than they should be” at a time when for many of us the demands of the office are such that “daily tasks, such as driving to work, can easily become an afterthought when an important call, text or email comes in.”

The article also raises an noteworthy legal point: “Although it is commonly assumed that employees using personal cellphones in their personal vehicles are liable to nobody but themselves in the event of a crash, (President of consulting firm OperationsInc David) Lewis said the argument could be made that employers are responsible for how and when their employees take and return business calls and messages.” As an Oregon distracted driving lawyer I agree with this analysis. It is a basic principle of law that employers are responsible for what employees do during the course and scope of their jobs.

A study recently released by the Oregon Department of Transportation appears to show that careful and comprehensive education efforts can have a significant impact on distracted driving, according to a recent report by Bend TV station KTVZ. The station quotes an ODOT report finding that “a coordinated high-visibility campaign in Bend aimed at reducing distracted driving had a significant impact on raising awareness of the importance of not texting/talking while driving.”

According to the TV station, the study was co-sponsored by the ODOT, Portland State University and Bend’s police department. “The report shows, among other findings, that almost 12 percent of people who were exposed to the “U Drive, U Text, U Pay” message reduced their texting-while-driving activity,” KTVZ reports.

Considering that the tagline of the campaign focused on money – the fines drivers can receive if they violate Oregon’s distracted driving laws – it is especially noteworthy that the study found that “the most common reason for respondents decreasing their texting-while-driving was ‘increased awareness of safety.’” This reason was cited by 30 percent of the drivers studied. In other words: while the campaign slogan focuses on drivers’ wallets the program was successful because it helped convince Oregon drivers that safety issues come first.

The latest phase of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety’s long running investigation of distracted driving and its causes highlights some potentially disturbing issues, according to a recent article published by MyCentralOregon.com. As the website notes, “the results raise new and unexpected concerns regarding the use of phones and vehicle information systems while driving.”

Specifically, the study challenges the common assumption that switching to hands-free devices solves most distracted driving problems. According to the website, the study concluded that “potentially unsafe mental distractions can persist after a driver dials, changes music or sends a text using voice commands on a voice-activated system.” Especially interesting is the focus on things we do not usually think of when we use the term “distracted driving,” such as using a car’s music or navigation systems.

More critical, however, is the discovery that distracted problems go far beyond cellphones, and cannot be solved simply by switching to headsets, in part because the distraction these devices create lingers even after one’s attention returns to driving.

The Oregonian this week reported on a guilty plea by a 24-year-old Gresham woman in an Oregon distracted driving case that encapsulates everything that is wrong with this growing problem.

According to the newspaper, the defendant admitted to “taking cellphone video of her child when she crashed into three teens outside their high school in January.” The three 14 and 15-year-old girls “sustained skull, pelvis and knee fractures” according to the paper, as well as “a broken nose, concussion and a lost tooth, and… a torn ACL and a concussion, court documents said.”

“Investigators found a 19-second clip on (the driver’s) phone that showed her hands off the wheel just before she plowed into the teens in the crosswalk, court documents said. She appeared to be holding the phone in her left hand and making gestures with her right hand at her son sitting in the back seat. Phone records show she had also been texting before the crash,” the Oregonian writes.

A summer marked by low gas prices has led to a jump in the number of miles Americans are driving. Unfortunately, it also appears to be leading to a significant increase in traffic deaths, according to a recent Yahoo! News article.

“The National Safety Council reported this week that traffic deaths and serious injuries in the US are on a pace to rise for the first time in nearly a decade. If the trend for the first six months of this year continues, the NSC says traffic fatalities in the nation will exceed 40,000 for the first time since 2007 and deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled will also increase,” the news service reports. The key lies in the last part of that sentence – indicating that the number of on-road deaths is not merely a function of the greater number of miles being driven. The article notes that when compared to 2007 the number of mile Americans drive has increased by 3.4% but in the first six months of 2015 alone the number of traffic fatalities has jumped by 14%.

According to the article a number of factors contribute to this – such as higher speed limits – but one might also think that the steadily improving safety gear in modern cars and trucks would, at least to some extent, mitigate that. The big thing that has changed for the worse, according to the study, is the steady rise in distracted driving in general and cellphone use in particular despite laws and educational campaigns here in Oregon and elsewhere designed to curb the practice. From a legal perspective this is especially significant since it, in turn, means that an increasingly large number of drivers are placing themselves at risk of wrongful death charges in the event of an accident.

We tend to think of distracted driving as something involving cellphones or, perhaps, overuse of a GPS or an in-dash entertainment system, but an Oregon bus accident this week offers a strong reminder of just how broad the term actually is.

According to a report in The Oregonian “the driver of a shuttle bus that crashed Saturday morning on Interstate 5 near Woodburn was trying to retrieve a water bottle when he lost control” of the vehicle. The accident occurred near milepost 269 in I-5’s southbound lane. The 35-person bus had only two passengers in addition to the 72-year-old driver, according to the paper. All three people suffered minor injuries when the bus “crossed the center median, broke a cable barrier, crossed the northbound lanes, went off the road and rolled onto the driver’s side.”

The bus hit a car as it crossed the northbound interstate but no one in that vehicle was injured. Two northbound lanes of the highway were closed “for several hours,” The Oregonian reports.