Distracted driving

Keeping eyes, and minds, on the road

CDOT highlights growing problem of distracted driving


Nicolle Dowling of Centennial knows her distracted driving is a problem.

“I’m aware of it, but I need to do a better job of not doing it,” Dowling said.

“Having the phone in my hand, whether it be for texting, talking, using navigation apps, getting information or just thinking I need to get information” — those are the things she sometimes does behind the wheel other than watching the road.

Dowling, 38, isn’t alone. A 2015 Colorado Department of Transportation survey shows one in four drivers admitted to reading a text message while behind the wheel during the previous week. The numbers are even higher for other forms of distraction, including eating.

As the rates of distracted driving rise in Colorado and the United States, so do the numbers of accidents, and deaths, it causes.

In 2015, 15,307 crashes involving distracted driving were reported in Colorado, an average of 42 accidents each day, according to CDOT. That’s a 16 percent increase in the past four years. Meanwhile, fatalities related to distracted driving rose to 69 in 2015, up from 59 in 2014.

The numbers have been going up despite a law passed in 2009 that made texting while driving illegal in Colorado.

“It’s clear distracted driving poses a threat to anyone on Colorado roadways,” Darrell Lingk, director of the Office of Transportation Safety for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said in a news release. “It may seem like a harmless glance at your phone, but a AAA study indicates that the cognitive distraction from using your phone can last as long as 27 seconds after finishing a distracting task.”

April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and the Colorado State Patrol is in the midst of a campaign of high-visibility enforcement. The state patrol is also soliciting suggestions for messages from residents on its Facebook page. Messages, such as last year’s favorite “Get your head out of your apps,” will be voted on and winning messages may appear on highway signs.

Getting the message

State Trooper Nate Reid wants drivers to know distracted driving isn’t limited to texting, though he has seen an increase in the number of devices motorists have available.

“Cognitive distractions” include using the radio, eating, daydreaming, talking with passengers or checking a map. Cell phone use was the leading cause of distracted driving crashes between 2012 and 2015, but other passengers in the vehicle were a close second.

“Anything that takes your focus off of keeping a 4,000-pound vehicle in your lane” is a distraction, Reid said. “Sometimes you can’t even see the distraction.”

Reid also said that although Colorado law makes it illegal to text while driving, any form of “manual data entry,” such as dialing a telephone or Googling an address, is also illegal.

Trying to stop

Distracted driving is a habit Josh and Hannah Stewart of Parker said they’ve been trying to break.

Josh Stewart, 34, said he was guilty of texting and driving in the past, but he avoids it now that his 3-year-old son is often riding with him. But he said other distractions, including his son, sometimes affect his driving.

“Having a kid in the car” is distracting, Josh said, “because they’re constantly asking you questions, or they drop a book or a toy or something and then I find myself reaching for it.”

Dowling agreed having a child in the car is a motivator to stop using a cell phone while driving. In her case, it’s her 17-year-old stepson she’s thinking about.

“He’s 17, he’s driving now,” she said. “I just don’t think it’s appropriate to set the example that it’s OK to use your phone and drive.”

Both of the Stewarts and Dowling said they notice many other drivers not paying attention.

“I feel like a hypocrite sometimes,” Josh Stewart said. “I’ll do it, but then I’ll get really ticked off when I see someone else doing it, or I see someone at a red light and their head is looking down, then up, and I hear the car behind them honking when the light changes. I feel like a lot of other people feel the same way.”

Dowling agreed, saying one of her motivations to curb her cell phone use while driving is her frustration with her husband for doing it.

“I ride myself about it because (my husband) does it a lot,” she said. “It’s difficult to tell someone else not to do it when you do it yourself.”

One for the ages

Just as the term “distracted driving” encompasses a variety of behaviors other than texting behind the wheel, it is also behavior that affects various age groups, not just younger drivers.

Although 21- to 30-year-olds made up the largest portion of offenders in distracted driving accidents, the second largest group consisted of drivers between 31 and 40, compiling 18 percent of the estimated 57,298 distracted driving crashes. More than half of the crashes were caused by drivers outside of these age groups.

Hannah Stewart, 32, believes the problem is more prevalent among younger drivers.

“I definitely see people of both genders doing it, but don’t think I’ve seen anyone 50 and over doing it,” she said.

Like her husband, Hannah Stewart said she used to text and drive but stopped because of increased awareness of the issue from previous awareness campaigns.

Another campaign begins this summer, and CDOT officials hope it will have an impact, too. “Drop the Distraction” will be a high-visibility effort to educate motorists on the dangers of distracted driving.

“The news and everything you see about (texting and driving) and all of the deaths, I pay attention to that stuff,” Hannah Stewart said. “The electric billboards that have the death toll from accidents that rises every week definitely has an impact on me. I’m actually glad I see those.”


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