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GUEST EDITORIAL: Phone distractions and road deaths in Georgia

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Marietta Daily Journal

A look at the alarming increase in people killed on Georgia roadways every year, and it’s a wonder anyone ever gets behind the wheel again.

In 2014, 1,170 people died in motor vehicle wrecks in Georgia. The death rate rose to 1,432 in 2015 and jumped to 1,559 last year, according to Harris Blackwood, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

Why the rise? Distracted driving for the most part, Blackwood said.

Attributing the exact number of deaths by distraction is impossible. It’s not a matter of simply sticking someone with a needle, as in the case of testing for intoxication.

Still, there are clues about those people who died while following a Facebook feed or texting their spouse on the highway, and those clues involve lane departures, rear-end crashes and striking trees or buildings.

“When you find a situation where there are no other contributing factors, the person appeared to be in good health. That’s when you make the assumption that distraction probably had something to do with it,” Blackwood said.

The motor vehicle death rate isn’t just up in Georgia. In 2014, 32,675 people died in automobile wrecks in the U.S. That number jumped to 40,200 last year, according to the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration.

Not all of those nearly 8,000 additional deaths are from distracted driving, but Blackwood said many thousands of them are.

Folks just seem unable to take a vacation from their phones. Like Ivan Pavlov’s celebrated dogs, once they hear their phone signal a new text message, too many drivers will look down to read it and respond, despite speeding down the highway.

Loss of life or severe injury is not the only outcome. Blackwood said the top insurance companies in the state met with him last week to ask what could be done to stop the wrecks, which are driving up the cost to policy holders.

Seven years ago, the Statehouse attempted to crack down on texting while driving by passing a law banning anyone under 18 from using a phone while driving — unless it was an emergency. The law also banned everyone from texting while operating a car.

Blackwood would rather have the law than not, but notes that at least before the law, drivers positioned their phones on the steering wheel while texting. Now they hide them between their knees, causing their eyes to completely leave the road. And because a driver at 60 mph travels the distance of a football field in five seconds, the results are predictably grim.

“The minute you start texting, you stop driving,” he said.

Police are at a disadvantage with the texting law, because if they pull a driver over, the first thing that driver will likely say is they were simply making a phone call. The U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t allow the officer to check the phone to see if the driver is telling the truth, therefore penalizing the guilty can be difficult to enforce.

But there are police departments who have come up with some creative ways to curb this dangerous behavior.

In 2015, for instance, Marietta police officers posed as construction workers on Cobb Parkway. When the undercover officers spotted drivers texting, they would radio ahead to patrol cars, who would then make a traffic stop.

Marietta Police Chief Dan Flynn said a large percentage of those who were cited claimed they did not know it was a violation to text while they were sitting still at a traffic light. Another outcome Flynn found from the experiment was that the operation was resoundingly supported by the general public.

“We believe the problem is increasing, particularly with the proliferation of new driving apps like Waze, that people are using while their vehicles are in motion,” Flynn said. “Also, we are hearing increased numbers of complaints about texting and driving impeding traffic flow in terms of motorists intently texting as they are sitting at a traffic light. Increasingly, they fail to notice the light has changed or simply wait to complete their text before proceeding. That slows traffic flow and annoys other drivers.”

Blackwood believes a barrier to cracking down on these reckless drivers is a libertarian streak in the Statehouse that is hesitant to tell Georgians what to do. While drivers don’t want the person in front or back of them texting, God help you if you tell them what to do.

With such a crisis unfolding, it is welcome news that state Rep. John Carson, R-Northeast Cobb, has proposed a House study committee to find solutions to the problem of distracted driving.

His efforts have rightly received applause from such groups as AT&T’s It Can Wait campaign and the Medical Association of Georgia.

Flynn already has a few recommendations. One is to look beyond the use of smartphones and examine other electronic devices, as well as eating and reading while driving.

The chief also advised a public awareness campaign to accompany any legislative reforms that may result from the committee’s findings.

The billboards, seen every now and then, of a person who died while texting, along with the unfinished message they were sending, are unforgettable.

In his committee hearings, Carson should carefully listen to Flynn and other law enforcement experts, trauma doctors and anyone else who wants to weigh in and come up with some common sense solutions that will help curb this senseless slaughter. And let’s do without the “it’s my car and I can do as I please” argument. One doesn’t have the right to cry “fire!” in a crowded theater nor does one have the liberty to endanger others by texting and tweeting behind the wheel of a car.