Law enforcement fights distracted driving

ESCANABA — April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month and local law enforcement want the public to know how dangerous distracted driving is as the numbers of accidents caused by distracted driving continue to rise.

“We want to educate the public more on really the dangers of distracted driving. People see the numbers. They see people are dying and there are traffic crashes more and more because of cell phones and other social media. We need to educate people more. It is a lot easier to educate than it is to enforce,” said Community Service Trooper Dale Hongisto from the Michigan State Police, Gladstone Post.

Delta County Sheriff Ed Oswald said dedicating a month to the issue allows law enforcement agencies to bring more awareness to the public on the dangers of distracted driving.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), between 2012 and 2017 nearly 20,000 people died in crashes involving a distracted driver — with 3,166 people killed in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver in 2017 alone.

According to the Michigan State Police (MSP) Criminal Justice Information Center (CJIC), there were 20,115 crashes in Michigan during 2017 involving distracted drivers, resulting in 72 fatalities. There has been a 57 percent increase in crashes and a 67 percent increase in fatalities since 2016.

“The numbers show that the numbers of (crashes) and numbers of fatalities are rising due to distracted driving every year,” Hongisto said.

Oswald said the number of crashes involving distracted driving would be higher but it can be difficult for officers to prove someone was distracted when they caused a traffic crash.

“I think it is much more prevalent than what is reported,” he said.

According to NHTSA, drivers between the ages of 16 and 24 are observed to use hand held electronic rates at higher rates than older drivers.

Oswald explained there is a misconception that it is just young kids who drive distracted.

“It’s not just young people, it’s all people,” he said. “I think it is more prevalent, yes, with the younger generation, but it is all people.”

Laws are continuously updated and changed so law enforcement agencies have to keep an eye on bills within the House of Representatives and Senate. Oswald said there is currently new legislation in the works to update Michigan’s distracted driving law. The ban on texting while driving went into effect in 2010.

House Bills 4181, 4198 and 4199 would extend the texting ban to prohibit other forms of driving distractions and increase penalties for drivers who drive distracted.

House Bill 4198 would extend the ban to prohibit drivers from using a cell phone or computer while they’re driving to “read, view, manually type, or send an interactive communication, or access, read, or post to a social media site.” An interactive communication is defined within the bill as “a text- or image-based communication including, but not limited to, a text message, an instant message, or electronic mail.”

House Bill 4181 proposes to ban drivers from engaging in the use of mobile electronic devices; wearing headphones/earphones in both ears; accessing, reading and posting to social media; and viewing, recording or transmitting a video on mobile electronic device. The bill defines “mobile electronic device” to include cell phones, computers, tablets, electronic games, cameras and video devices, and “any similar device that is readily removable from a vehicle and is used to write, send, or read text or data or capture images or video through manual input.”

HB 4181 also proposes the following penalties: civil infraction, $100 fine or 16 hours of community service for a first violation, $250 fine and/or 24 hours of community service for a second or subsequent violation, fines are doubled when a car accident occurs, driver license suspension for three or more violations within a three-year period, a second offense results in one point on the driver’s record, and a third and subsequent offenses results in two points on the driver’s record.

House Bill 4199 proposes fine increases for drivers who text and drive from $100 to $250 for first time violations and from $200 to $500 for second and subsequent violations.

“I believe bills like these are going to gain traction with the amount of accidents we see due to distracted driving,” Oswald said.

The current texting while driving law has proven to be difficult to enforce for law enforcement agencies.

“The texting while driving is a difficult law to enforce — you just don’t get a lot of opportunities to make traffic stops for texting while driving,” Hongisto said.

He explained he tends to see far more people on their phones while driving when he is in his personal vehicle because people tend to put their phones down when they notice a marked police vehicle.

“Quite honestly, as a police officer in a marked patrol vehicle we don’t see, typically, a driver texting and driving because they see the police car,” he said.

Oswald said his department issues more tickets for people not maintaining their lane than texting while driving tickets.

He explained when people aren’t maintaining their lane while driving, it could be because of distracted driving but it is hard to prove that the driver was texting unless the officer witnesses the driver texting before making the traffic stop.

The Michigan State Police, Gladstone Post, issued a statement for all drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the roadway.

The MSP Gladstone Post also released safe driving tips to decrease distracted driving in the area. The troopers suggested drivers pull over and park in a safe location if they are expecting a text or need to send one, designate a passenger as the “designated texter,” not to engage in social media while driving, and put cell phones out of reach as cell phone use can become habitual.