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Driving while distracted

Texting, talking contribute to crashes, State Police find.

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DISTRACTED DRIVING: New accident category.
  • DISTRACTED DRIVING: New accident category.

Of 98,640 Arkansas drivers involved in crashes in 2008, 787 (0.79 percent) either admitted to being distracted by talking on a cell phone or texting, or were determined by investigating officers to have been so distracted. Ninety-nine drivers were distracted by other electronic devices in their vehicles, such as navigation devices and “palm pilots.” Another 1,850 drivers were beset by non-electronic distractions inside the vehicle (crying babies, putting on lipstick, reading a newspaper, etc.). And 2,953 were distracted by things outside the vehicle (looking at the scene of an accident as they passed by, waving at a neighbor, etc.).

A total of 74,120 drivers were classified as “not distracted.” In the case of another 18,831 drivers, it was undetermined whether they were distracted or not. The number of motor-vehicle crashes investigated was 64,000. Some of the crashes involved more than one driver.

The year 2008 was the first full year for which reliable data on driver distraction was collected in Arkansas. At the request of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the State Police began including “driver distraction” on the Arkansas Motor Vehicle Crash Report form in 2007. The State Police prepare the form, which is used by all law enforcement officers investigating crashes in the state. But in 2007, there was some confusion about the proper use of the new form, and some law enforcement agencies began using it later than was intended, according to State Police spokesman Bill Sadler, so the 2008 data is considered more reliable. The Highway Traffic Safety Administration requested all states to gather data on driver distraction, but Sadler said he didn't know how many were doing so.

The accuracy of the data depends in large part on the testimony of the drivers. State Police instructions for the “driver distraction” section of the crash report say: “Record the distraction which may have influenced the driver performance as stated by the driver or otherwise substantiated by investigation. … Be specific about the type of electronic device in the narrative. Choose only one. If you feel there was more than one distraction, be sure and indicate this in the narrative. … Unknown is to be used when you cannot be reasonably certain the driver was not distracted.”

The dangers of driving while texting or talking on a cell phone have begun to attract much attention. The 2009 Arkansas legislature passed laws prohibiting texting while driving, and restricting the use of cell phones by drivers under 21. The laws will apply to all violations after Oct. 1. A number of states have passed similar laws, but most states have not.

Federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said last week that texting while driving should be outlawed. The state governments have jurisdiction in the matter, apparently, but the federal government might be able to influence the state decisions. LaHood said that a meeting of state and federal transportation and law-enforcement officers, and members of Congress, would be held in September to examine ways to deal with distracted driving.

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