Multitasking Drivers Pose Safety Hazard, Say Ala. Police

September 5, 2006

Tony Barnett has seen it all in his 25 years as a law enforcement officer.

But sometimes he’s still surprised by what motorists will attempt to do while they’re driving.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 25 percent of the 6.3 million crashes reported each year involve some type of driver distraction.

Barnett, a captain in charge of the Florence Police Department’s traffic division, said drivers face enough distractions without some of the multitasking many attempt while they are behind the wheel.

“I’ve seen them do a little bit of everything,” Barnett admits.

Applying makeup. Shaving. He’s even seen drivers brushing their teeth. Yes, brushing their teeth.

Barnett said he’s witnessed students driving down the road with a textbook nestled on the steering wheel, reading as they are driving to school.

“I’ve seen that a bunch,” he said. “Makeup is the big thing with women, with the sun visor down, looking in the mirror.”

Barnett and other law enforcement officers concede that the biggest distraction comes from one of the most popular electronic gadgets — the cellular telephone.

A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study revealed that dialing a cell phone triples the risk of a crash or near crash, and talking or listening to a cell phone increases that risk by 130 percent.

“That’s by far the most common distraction I see now,” Sheffield police Capt. Anthony Pace said.

“You see a little bit of everything,” Pace said. “Reading, I’ve seen some. Eating. You see that every day. People sometimes just get in another world when they’re driving and are not aware of what’s going on around them.”

Modern technology can certainly help drivers, but can also provide new distractions, as is the case with cell phones.

Vehicles today can be equipped with global positioning systems to aid drivers in getting to their destinations and digital video disk players to entertain passengers.

Electronic gadgets like mp3 players can also take a driver’s attention away from the road.

Still, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study indicates that cell phones cause the most distraction.

“It’s going to be between cellular telephone use and just basically not paying attention to their driving,” Muscle Shoals Police Chief Robert Evans said.

Evans said cellular telephones have become a part of people’s lives and are a necessity for some.

The chief also blames driver distraction on the fast-paced life most Americans live.

“People will take care of things they normally would not attempt in a car if they were not pressed for time,” Evans said.

“In some cases, they’re still getting dressed while driving down the road,” he said. “It’s unbelievable the things people will try to do while operating a car.”

So far, in the U.S., only four states have enacted bans on cell phone use while operating a motor vehicle. Another 15 states have restrictions of cell phone use by school bus drivers and teenage drivers.

Bills have been introduced into the Alabama Legislature addressing cell phone use and driving, but so far none have passed.

“I do think we will eventually see an eventual law limiting some types of cell phone use,” Barnett said.

He said he believes it will happen within the next five years and could come in the same way states were forced to adopt seat belt laws and stricter drunk driving laws.

“I don’t know if I would go that far,” Sheffield’s Pace said.

People, he said, need to be more aware of their surroundings and if they need to use a cell phone in the car, they should pull off the road.

State Rep. Marcel Black, D-Muscle Shoals, said the Legislature would have to be educated about the dangers of cell phone use and driving before legislators will support a ban.

“Anytime you restrict people’s freedoms, it’s a tough bill,” Black said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study shows that while it doesn’t fit the typical definition of distracted driving, frustration with other drivers can be considered a distraction that could lead to a wreck.

Evans said billboards, which are designed specifically to draw drivers’ attention, could also lead to a wreck.

“Any amount of time your eyes are off the road is that much more opportunity to be involved in a traffic accident,” Evans said.

He said a ban on cell phone use while driving would become a reality if cell phone use can be directly linked to increases in traffic crashes.

“That’s when you can anticipate our Legislature introducing some bills regarding restrictions or prohibited use,” Evans said. “Until the numbers reach unacceptable levels, I don’t anticipate seeing that.”

Evans said there is no way to track the number of accidents that were directly caused by cell phone use.

He said cell phone use as a contributing circumstance would fall in the category of “driver not in control,” which includes failure to yield, reaching into the floorboard to retrieve something or changing your radio station.

Driver not in control, he said, is one of the leading causes of crashes in Muscle Shoals, along with following too closely and excessive speed.

He did say that in the future, accident reports could have a box to check if cell phone use is a contributing factor in a wreck. That would be one way to determine if legislation is needed to restrict the use of cell phones while driving.

Shoals residents offered mixed opinions on a ban on cell phone use while driving.

Eulalia Winborn, of Sheffield, said their use should be banned.

“I’ve almost been hit several times by people using their cell phones while driving,” she said.

Winborn said she has a cell phone but does not use it while driving.

Jackie Kimbrough, of Muscle Shoals, agrees that using a cell phone while driving can be dangerous, but isn’t sure a complete ban is necessary.

Kimbrough said she doesn’t like to use her cell phone while driving and will pull over it if rings. Sometimes, she said, she just doesn’t answer it.

Lucas Cantrell, of Sheffield, said cell phone use while driving should be prohibited.

“I think it’s dangerous, and I don’t think you should be driving and talking on a cell phone,” he said.

Cantrell said he has had a few near misses with people driving and talking on their cell phones.

“We were on our honeymoon and a lady cut us off who was using her cell phone,” he said.

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