Traffic fatalities and injuries are on the decline across the region, but highway safety leaders and advocates are warning of a growing problem: distracted driving, in large part from the use of cell phones while behind the wheel.
“Where it used to be eating was probably was one of our biggest distractions or changing the radio, today it’s I leaned over to take my cell phone call, or I leaned over for just a moment to dial a number,” says Howard Dickinson, with the Kansas Highway Patrol and co-chair of a group trying to improve the region’s transportation system.
Over the last five years, more than 2,000 serious injuries and nearly 200 fatalities have occurred in the 12 county metro area because someone was distracted while driving, according to the latest data from the Mid America Regional Council (MARC).
Dickinson and other area transportation leaders say many such instances could be avoided.
Leanna Depue, director of highway safety with the Missouri Department of transportation, says a person is eight times more likely to get in an accident while using a cell phone. Texting, or “intextication,” as she calls it, increases the risk 23-fold.
Depue says taking on the problem is especially complicated. Most people believe distracted driving threatens their safety, but a majority will also admit to recently using a phone while driving, she explains.
She and other area leaders in transportation safety met at MARC’s main office yesterday to discuss the issue and to call on a ban on cell phone use while driving. Kansas has an across the board ban on texting while driving. Missouri’s texting ban applies to those under the age of 21. Dickenson, with the Kansas Highway Patrol, says it’s too soon to know whether the ban in Kansas - enacted two years ago - has had an effect, but both states recently expanded how crashes are reported to better document and understand the factors at play.
Below is Missouri’s expanded code-list for incident reports:
1 - External Distraction
2 - Passenger
3 - Stero /Audio/Video Equipment
4 - Navigation Device
5 - Communication Device - Hand-held
6 - Communication Device- Hands free
7 - Communication Device - Texting /Emailing
8 - Communication Device - Web Browsing
9 - Eating / Drinking
10 - Reading
11 - Tobacco Use
12 - Grooming
13 - Computer Equipment / Electronic Games / etc.
14 - Adjusting Controls
15 - Other