Fatalities on the rise


Eyes on the road, hands on the wheel

By DAVE CALDWELL, Staff Writer dcaldwell@minotdailynews.com
December 13, 2009
It's one for the record books, but a record that nobody wants.
The year 2009 will go down in history as one of the deadliest ever on North Dakota highways. As of Nov. 30, 133 people have died this year on the state's roads, already an increase of nearly 28 percent over 2008 with a month left to go. In 2007, 111 people were killed in accidents, seven more than 2008.
Alcohol, long acknowledged as a dangerous combination with driving, was involved in 40 percent of the crashes thus far in 2009, with 53 fatalities being alcohol-related. Lack of seat belt usage also played a major role, with 81 of the 111 applicable deaths being unbelted or having unknown belt status at the time of the crash.
Those numbers, unfortunately, still have time to increase with the holiday travel season fast approaching and more than two weeks remaining in 2009.
Although drinking and driving remains a major issue in crashes, authorities are seeing a new, troubling trend emerging an increase in the number of "distracted drivers."
Distracted driving can be caused by people eating, putting on makeup or most any other activity that involves sharing the driver's attention with the road. Advances in technology have provided a wealth of instantly accessible information at a user's fingertips, but when a driver uses a personal electronic device while driving, the results have the potential to be disastrous.
Text messaging is becoming one of the main culprits.
Capt. Gary Orluck, the commander of the North Dakota Highway Patrol's Northwest District, said it's now common to witness drivers texting while behind the wheel.
"You see it when you're driving around town," Orluck said. "Obviously it's a little tougher to detect out in the country, but I'm not naive enough to think it doesn't happen out there as well."
Orluck said he is certain texting or cell phone usage is a contributing factor in many fatal accidents, but the exact percentages are impossible to nail down.
"It's hard to know for sure that the text was being read or being sent at the exact time of the crash, because it's very hard to pinpoint the time of the crash unless you have a witness that was able to call 9-1-1 immediately," he said. "But that hardly ever happens."
Texting might be the new "whipping boy" for placing blame on accident causes, but Orluck stresses that any number of factors can come into play with distracted driving. It would be just as easy for a person turning around to tend to their children in the back seat to run off the edge of the road, into other vehicles or into any object in the area of the highway.
"I don't want to single out texting as the cause of all these fatals or cell phone usage per se," Orluck said. "Distracted driving in general is an issue."
Even devices such as global positioning systems that are becoming more and more common in private vehicles can lead to a distraction.
"It comes down to personal responsibility for everybody to ensure that they are paying attention," Orluck said.
At 65 mph, a vehicle travels more than 95 feet per second. Most people would consider the idea of closing your eyes for five seconds while traveling at that speed to be ridiculous, but how many of those same people would read and begin to reply to a text message while driving? During that time, more than the length of a football field will be covered by the vehicle.
Numerous news sources have referenced an American Automobile Association (AAA) study that likens a driver's physical ability and reactions while texting to a person with a blood alcohol percentage of 0.08, the high end of the legal limit.
Car and Driver Magazine took it one step further, conducting a test where a driver traveling at 35 mph and 70 mph reacted to a red light on the dash by braking the vehicle. Subjects reading aloud a text message and texting back the identical message performed "far worse" than the same drivers after enough alcoholic beverages consumed to reach the legal limit, but without the texting distraction.
Orluck said he has heard that association before.
"You know, I don't disagree with that especially for those few seconds that you're distracted," he said, then quickly added that the same would be true with other forms of distraction as well.
"We've been behind drivers that we were sure were under the influence, because they were all over the road during the time we were behind them," Orluck said. "But when we pull them over, it turns out they were just tired, or talking to my friend, or something like that.
"We get that all the time."
People take driving for granted, because it's something they do every day, Orluck said. But too often, people are thinking about issues totally unrelated to steering a moving vehicle instead of focusing on the task at hand.
"Driving when you really think about it is a complex task," he said, encompassing concentration, hand-eye coordination and the physical ability to operate the vehicle. "You take away the biggest part of that concentration and everything else quickly begins to suffer as well."
Orluck said he has seen plenty of crashes that are one-vehicle rollovers in perfect weather in which too many people are ejected due to lack of seat belt usage.
"And I know a lot of that is due to some form of distracted driving," he said.
Texting while driving is now banned in 16 states, the District of Columbia and Guam. In January 2010, three more states join the list. In the majority of those, enforcement is primary, meaning users can be ticketed without any other infraction taking place.
Orluck said he hasn't heard any "rumblings" about a ban in North Dakota, and he sees any such action as slightly problematic.

"I can see where there would be some difficulty in enforcing that proving that someone was texting as opposed to looking down at something else," he said.


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