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VOL. 9 | NO. 48 | Saturday, November 26, 2016

Distracted To Death

Enforcing texting bans difficult and less than a solution

By Don Wade

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When the Tennessee Highway Patrol began using a tractor-trailer on the interstate to catch people texting while driving, the troopers knew their view from above would help their cause. From that higher vantage point, they could see drivers holding their phones in their laps and typing.

The troopers in the big-rig would then radio ahead and other troopers would make the stop and issue the citation. Texting while driving is against the law in Tennessee and in 45 other states. In Tennessee, texting while driving or in any way driving while distracted falls under the umbrella of the “due care law,” which states that every driver is responsible for “devoting full time and attention to operating a motor vehicle ...”

It’s not news that a lot of drivers are preoccupied with their cell phones or other technology in one way or another. But it is getting worse. In fact, Sgt. Chris Richardson of the Tennessee Highway Patrol puts the problem in the category of a disease.

“It’s a texting and driving epidemic,” he said.

Distracted driving, however, takes in a lot of territory. It’s eating and drinking while driving, reprimanding a child in the backseat, putting on makeup or shaving – yes, people do that – and using a GPS or talking on your cell phone even if it is hands-free.

In 14 states and Washington D.C., using a hand-held phone while driving is illegal. It is legal in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas. It is illegal, however, for bus drivers.

By definition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention breaks down distracted driving this way: visual (not looking at the road), manual (hands off the wheel) and cognitive (your mind is on something else).

Texting and driving, then, is the trifecta. But it wasn’t the only thing troopers witnessed from the tractor-trailer.


The definition of distracted driving is broader than you might think. It is not just texting while driving. 

In fact, the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration puts distracted driving into three distinct categories:

Visual: Taking your eyes off the road.

Manual: Taking your hands off the wheel.

Cognitive: Taking your mind off driving.

Texting is so dangerous because it involves all three areas. But distracted driving takes in other activities including talking on a cell phone (hand-held or hands-free), using in-car navigation systems, adjusting a radio, reading, disciplining child passengers, grooming, and eating and drinking.

No one would intentionally drive blind-folded, but if you spend five seconds texting while driving 55 mph you will travel 300 feet – or the length of a football field.

“We actually saw one lady reading her bills that came in the mail while she was driving on (Interstate) 240,” Richardson said. “She couldn’t hold her lane.”

In 2015, Tennessee had more than 197,000 automobile accidents. Mechanical failure was responsible for just 2 percent of those crashes, Richardson says, adding, “That means in 98 percent there was driver error.”

And some of these errors are tragically unforgiving.

In Memphis this year, a teen was struck and killed by a car while he was walking down the sidewalk when a young driver reading a text message veered off the road.

Across the country, daily, at least eight people are killed and more than 1,000 people are injured in accidents reported to involve distracted driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

How law enforcement approaches the problem varies widely. But speaking to the notion that texting and driving is an epidemic, Gary Lowry, division insurance manager at the AAA office in Cordova, said:

“If you’re a cop, you could give out as many tickets as you want. If they stopped everybody they saw texting, that’s all they’d do all day long.”


In some places, enforcement has become more of a priority as smartphones have become more common and the distracted driving problem spreads like a rogue contagion.

The problem police have with catching people texting and driving is the same as it is with catching speeders, only more so, says Capt. Sean Williams, who oversees the patrol division of the Collierville Police Department.

“When people see a marked squad car pull up beside them they’re not going to have their phone out texting,” Williams said. “You see a marked car when you’re speeding, you slow down. But at least we can clock them at a distance.”

Perhaps even more troubling is the reality that sometimes a marked squad car is still invisible to the texting driver.

“They’re so engrossed it won’t matter,” said Deputy Chief Rodney Bright of the Germantown Police Department. “Which is a commentary on how dangerous it is.”

To better enforce the law, police in some parts of the country have become quite creative. The Associated Press reported that in a Maryland suburb, a police officer disguised as a homeless man monitored an intersection and radioed to officers down the road. In just two hours, police wrote 56 tickets. In Bridgewater, Mass., near Boston, officers used bicycles to get closer to drivers and issue citations.

Bartlett police only wrote six tickets, which ranged in cost from $86 to $270, for texting and driving from July 1 through mid-November and five of those six tickets were issued by motorcycle patrol and the other by an officer in an unmarked car.

“We probably should do some type of saturation,” said Bartlett Police Chief Gary Rikard, adding that just as suspected drunken drivers often say they just “had a couple of beers,” distracted drivers often have a ready-made answer: “A lot of times an officer hears, `Well, I was looking at my GPS.’ That’s still distracted driving.”

And then there’s double-distracted driving.

While the Tennessee Highway Patrol has the story of the woman reading her mail, Virginia state trooper Lt. Paul Watts told the Associated Press: “One driver had two phones going at the same time – one in his left hand and one in his right hand, with his wrist on the steering wheel.”


Federal estimates suggest that distraction contributes to 16 percent of all fatal crashes, or about 5,000 deaths every year (although some industry experts believe this to be a conservative estimate).

More than 50 percent of all accidents are related to cell phone use.

Research indicates distraction “latency” lasts an average of 27 seconds, meaning that, even after drivers put down a phone or stop fiddling with a navigation system, they are not fully engaged with the driving task.

A recent in-car study showed that teen drivers were distracted almost a quarter of the time they were behind the wheel. 

When asked if texting and driving is dangerous, 97 percent of teens said yes; yet 43 percent admit to doing it.

And 75 percent of teens say their friends text and drive, and 77 percent say their parents text and drive.

Source: AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and Drive-Safely.net

The widely accepted metric is that the average text takes about five seconds, and in five seconds if driving 55 mph, a car will travel 300 feet – the length of a football field.

“Nobody is good enough to pull this off,” said Lowry of AAA. “A lot of NASCAR drivers have come out and said they’re not good enough. And if they’re not good enough, what makes you think you’re good enough?

“Lack of focus kills people. It just does.”


Both AAA and the Tennessee Highway Patrol have simulators that can show drivers just how dangerous texting and driving is. Locally, the THP has taken its simulator to Millington and Christian Brothers high schools.

The AAA simulator will be at the Cordova office through Nov. 28 and anyone can reserve a time to try it out free of charge (you don’t have to be an AAA member).

“This is a community service,” Lowry said. “We’re just trying to help people.”

A few minutes on the simulator has the potential to humble you. In the distracted driving model, you are tasked with listening to directions from a female voice that includes the instruction to type in a phone number and later, a message on a cell phone embedded in the simulator’s screen.

Meantime, in front of you, there are stop signs, red lights, marked patrol cars monitoring your speed, other drivers who don’t obey all the laws of the road, deer that run across the road in front of you, and even pedestrians who cross the street at the wrong time.

Hit anything – be it a guardrail, deer, car or person – and your drive is over. You next get the simulated experience of lying on the ground and looking up at medical personnel before being airlifted to the hospital. Later, you may meet a judge who will hit you with a fine, suspend your license, place you on probation, and give you a reservation in the county jail.

“Kids think they’re immortal,” Lowry said. “It’s an eye-opener.”

But by no means is distracted driving a malady confined to the young. In a survey for Drive-Safety.net, 75 percent of teens did admit they had friends who text and drive. But 77 percent said their parents text and drive.

A study by State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., of 1,000 drivers, found that drivers age 18 to 29 reported talking on held-held phones, texting, and surfing the internet at much higher rates than other drivers. Nearly 60 percent reported sending a text while driving and 48 percent said they browsed the internet.

If texting and driving is indeed an epidemic, solutions will have to come from multiple directions and, ideally, before reaching the enforcement phase. Apps that automatically send a message stating the cell phone owner is driving are available, but they’re voluntary.


As of November 2016, 14 states and Washington D.C. prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving. In all cases these are “primary enforcement laws,” meaning an officer may cite a driver for using a hand-held phone without any other offense taking place. Using a hand-held phone is not banned in Tennessee, Arkansas or Mississippi.

However, in many states – including Tennessee and Arkansas – novice drivers are prohibited from using hand-held cell phones.

Currently, 46 states and D.C. ban text messaging while driving. The four states that do not have a ban: Arizona, Missouri (except for drivers 21 and younger), Montana and Texas (the latter does have a ban in school zones).

Texting and driving can result in a fine. But if you hit another vehicle and injure someone while texting you could lose your license and even face jail time. If someone is killed while you’re texting and driving, you could face a charge of vehicular homicide.

Source: Governors’ Highway Safety Association

“The cell phone industry is going to have to change this,” Lowry said, adding that he also believes fines and punishments for a first offense should be more stringent.

Here’s one reason: Drivers who take their eyes off the road for more than two seconds – for whatever reason – double their risk of being in a crash, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, and president and CEO Peter Kissinger says, “There is a culture of indifference for far too many drivers.”

Lowry goes further.

He rides a motorcycle. Recently, he left his office and was at the intersection of North Germantown Parkway and Cordova Road. A man driving a truck had his cell phone up to his ear. The driver pulled in front of Lowry and Lowry blasted his horn.

“He looked at me like, `What?’ These people are self-absorbed.”

Richardson, of the THP, worries that change will be slow to come because texting and driving does not carry the same “stigma” as driving under the influence.

To that point, he asks this sobering question:

“How many folks do you know that don’t drink at all? But now think about distracted driving. Now you’re talking 100 percent.”

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