New survey: Distracted driving deaths up 32 percent; cell phone use a key factor

OLYMPIA, Wash. - A newly released survey shows that cell phone use is the greatest cause of distracted driving in Washington state and that fatalities from distracted driving have increased dramatically over a one-year period.

The study by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission found that 71 percent of distracted drivers were preoccupied with their phones while operating their vehicles. The results of the study were released Monday.

Statewide, nearly one out of 10 drivers are distracted while driving, representing a distraction rate of 9.2 percent, according to the study. Fatalities from distracted driving increased by 32 percent from 2014 to 2015 in Washington state.

"With drivers engaging in the riskiest type of distracting behavior - cell phone use - reducing distracted driving must become a higher priority," said Angie Ward, program manager at the commission.

More than 22,300 vehicle drivers were observed in the survey, in 23 counties across the state. While cell phone use was the most frequent distraction, other distractions included eating, tuning a radio or attending to pets or children.

Other research has shown that cell phone use has been found to triple the risk of crashes. Entering text into a cell phone can increase crash risk by up to 23 times.

The family of Tyler Smedley knows the pain of this all to well. Smedley, a father of two, was killed in a single-car crash in late 2015. His family later discovered a selfie video Smedley took which appears to show the moments leading up to the crash.

"It takes that one split second of your phone - being on your phone and looking away from the road," said Smedley's aunt, Joanne Higgins. "He took his eyes off the road for one split second to look at his phone while he was videotaping himself. Too many people are dying."

Higgins has now committed to educating drivers and toughening distracted driving laws.

Washington's current law passed in 2006 and outlaws holding a phone to one's ear, along with texting, said Derek Wing, a spokesman for PEMCO Insurance. A bill currently making its way through the State Legislature would update the law to include things like social media and GPS use.

"Nearly half the people we talked with admitted to texting or talking on their phones while driving," Wing said. "I believe that that number is probably even higher than that in terms of the people that didn't admit to it."

"I have been to a collision scene where it was believed that the cause of the collision was someone taking a selfie and they were distracted," said Trooper Chris Klukas with the Washington State Patrol, as he drove through Bellevue on Monday. "Those few seconds of time where you're not paying attention to the driving are seconds where anything can happen."

A study by AAA found that it can take a driver 27 seconds to refocus on the road after using a cell phone – in which time a car moving at 25 mph can travel the length of three football fields.

Bills pending in the state Legislature would ban the use of any hand-held devices while driving including phones, tablets and other electronic devices that could impair a person's attention while on the road.

The proposals would also double the fine, which is currently $136 if caught texting or holding a phone to the ear while driving.

The commission plans to conduct a new study on distracted driving every two years, to see if any progress is being made to reduce the dangerous and potentially deadly behavior.

The commission's full report is available here.

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