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Distracted Driving Awareness Month Begins With Plea to Change Behavior

Tuesday, April 02, 2013 - 10:28 AM

(photo by Jim Legans, Jr.)

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) Safety advocates are pivoting off Distracted Driving Awareness Month to publicize the issue.

Meanwhile, legislators in Richmond -- and push for legislation making texting while driving a primary offense in Virginia.

"I think we're getting to the point where people are starting to understand and recognize that, but I'm not sure people are quite aware of how dangerous it is,” says Debbie Pickford, chair of the board of Drive Smart Virginia.

Just how dangerous? Texting while driving increases your risk of a crash by 23 times, according to a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. Eighty percent of all crashes and 65 percent of all near crashes involve driver inattention within three seconds before the accident. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has been known to honk at drivers he sees talking on cell phones, has called distracted driving "an epidemic on America's roadways."

Despite these findings, Pickford says, it has been difficult convincing teenagers as well as adults to drop their gadgets and keep both eyes on the road. “The problem is getting worse,” she says. Her group is encouraging drivers to sign a pledge in which they publicly commit to eschewing cell phones while driving.

According to a report by the Governors Highway Safety Association, teen driver deaths went up in the first six months of 2012 compared to the same period the prior year, and Pickford says a big reason is driver distractions like smart phones.

“We’re a multitasking society. We’re a busy society,” Pickford says. “I think multitasking has become a way of life, so people are just trying to get things done when they are in their cars and there is a lot more you can do now on a smartphone.”

Distracted Driving Awareness Month was once just one week, and advocates plans to extend their activities well past April into the “dangerous months” for teenagers when proms and graduation parties increase the potential for risky road behaviors.

Ultimately, safety advocates would like society to view distracted driving the same way it now sees drunk driving, but Pickford concedes that will take many years.

“It took a while for society to get to the fact that drinking and driving is really very dangerous, so I think it will take a few years to build this campaign and make people aware,” she says. “It doesn’t happen over night and it’s why we have gone from a week to a month.  We are hosting a distracted driving summit in September in Richmond.”

Advocates are also looking to Richmond lawmakers for help. This week state legislators are expected to approve legislation that would make texting while driving a primary offense.

“Right now a policeman can pull someone over if they see something else going on in the car.  They cannot pull them over if they see you texting while driving,” Pickford says.

Drive Smart Virginia says youth education starts in the car with parents. Children as young as five begin to pick up their parents’ driving behaviors, so she is urging parents to set good examples and refrain from using hand-held cell phones at the wheel.

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