Distracted driving has been getting a lot of national media attention in recent weeks, largely stemming from New York Times reporter Matt Richtel’s series on the dangerous combination of cell phones, texting and driving.
Columnists and commentators across the country seem to be chiming in daily in response, some shamefully admitting to their own distracted-driving behavior and others calling for a federal ban on any cell phone use while driving.
All of this is helping to create a national dialogue on the issue that some believe is long overdue.
Here in Minnesota, distracted driving long has been viewed as a danger by public safety officials but has not seemed a high-priority issue for many in the media or at the Capitol.
Local high-profile case in spotlight
Last week’s Hennepin county court plea, however, raises the issue’s local profile substantially.
On Friday, former car dealership king Denny Hecker admitted to the judge that he had been texting and checking his email on his BlackBerry last December when he crashed his SUV into a utility pole near his home.
Hecker’s admission subjects him to a new state law, in effect since last August, that makes it a misdemeanor to text-message and drive at the same time. It’s the state’s one and only legislative measure so far that limits all drivers’ use of digital media behind the wheel.
It is not clear whether the new attention to distracted-driving issues will lead to further reforms and stiffer legislation in Minnesota and elsewhere.
But one sign that the issue may be gaining local political momentum comes from Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has declared this Saturday Distraction-free Driving Day.
Pawlenty’s proclamation (PDF) reads, in part:
“Eighty percent of all crashes occur within three seconds of a driver distraction event, and many fatalities could be avoided by simply following safe driving practices such as using hands-free cell phones and avoiding texting, e-mailing, accessing the Web, tuning radios and stereos, and looking at maps while driving.”
But, as Pawlenty’s proclamation points out, the problem of distracted driving is not limited to texting, web surfing or talking on the phone. There are many things we do as drivers that take our attention away longer than the three dangerous seconds when most crashes occur.
There’s the perennial distraction of chatting or arguing with other passengers … or searching for the right song on the radio. And the 180-degree head-turn to grab something from the back seat.
Minnesota crash data detail safety toll
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s 2008 crash data detail the results of driver distraction or inattention:
• 11 percent of all fatal crashes (65 crashes resulting in 74 deaths)
• 20 percent of all injury crashes (6,300 resulting in 8,999 injuries)
• 20 percent of all property damage crashes (12,428).
The director of the state’s Office of Traffic Safety, Cheri Marti, calls the statistics “conservative” and says distracted- driving statistics generally are under-reported, because they depend on the drivers admitting to the behavior.
Still, Marti estimates that one of every four traffic crashes in Minnesota is related to distraction, making it “the leading cause of crashes in the state.”
“We have an epidemic of multitasking on the road,” says Marti. “Drivers are overestimating their abilities and there’s a dangerous overconfidence. Driving itself is a multitasking activity, with all you have to pay attention to — your mirrors, your brakes, signage, watching for pedestrians, bicyclists, other vehicles and the unexpected. Anything added to that takes your focus off the road.”
Given the potential deadliness of distracted driving, which everyone seems to agree is getting worse as digital multitasking becomes more commonplace, it’s surprising that, lawmakers nationally are doing next to nothing to curb distracted driving.
Minnesota is slightly more proactive than most states, but that’s not saying much.
Just 14 states (including Minnesota) have laws prohibiting texting and surfing the web while driving. Minnesota’s law allows the use of cell phones — you can still talk and drive.
Only five states have a “hands-free”-only law for cell phone use in cars (Minnesota isn’t one of them).
The lone Minnesota statute related to outlawing cell phone use while driving pertains only to teens and new drivers when they’re in the permit phase. After they pass that probationary period, though, they’re free to chat and drive like the rest of us.
This frustrates such public safety advocates as Minnesotans for Safe Driving, which says that Minnesota is slow to change its ways when it comes to rules of the road. (Remember, back in 2005, Minnesota was among the last three states in the nation to lower the state’s legal blood alcohol level from 0.10 to 0.08.)
Safe-driving advocates want tougher laws
Minnesotans for Safe Driving’s Nancy Johnson says laws related to distracted-driving fatalities merit similar penalties as deaths resulting from DWIs.
Right now, if a driver is texting or grabbing something from the back seat and ends up killing somebody, the maximum penalty he or she can be charged with is a misdemeanor (up to 90 days in jail and a fine of $700 to $1,000).
Over the last couple of years, Johnson’s group has been pushing a bill that would make distracted driving a gross misdemeanor (up to a year in jail and $3,000 fine) in the case of a fatality. It also would give prosecutors the option to charge the crime as a felony.
By contrast, if you kill somebody while driving drunk, you could face up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
“People are just as devastated when a loved one dies in a non-alcohol-related crash,” says Johnson. “And it’s even more difficult for the families because the penalties are so much less. A gross misdemeanor penalty gives more credence to the seriousness of the crime. Of course, people don’t intentionally try to kill somebody while driving, but people have to learn to focus on driving and not everything else.”
How dangerous is driving while texting, compared with driving after drinking? Check out this Car and Driver video, which compares reaction times of texting drivers and those who have been drinking. The results show that texting can be more dangerous in some cases.
Johnson says the bill has never gained much traction at the Legislature. Last session, it never made it out of committee. Johnson says the bill will be back next year. And Marti of the state’s Office of Traffic Safety says that some lawmakers already have expressed interest in an informational hearing next session on the issue of distracted driving.
As a member of the Pawlenty administration, Marti would not say unequivocally if she would support tougher penalties for distracted driving.
“Having stronger laws is important,” says Marti. “We know strong laws change behavior. That’s the formula that works. I’m not here to lobby. As people start to build their awareness of the issue, it will bubble up to the legislators.”
Marisa Helms can be reached at mhelms (at) minnpost.com.