Arizona: Tops in careless driving states

University of Arizona senior Alexandra Meyers texting at a stop light in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Emily Homa)

Distracted driving remains a rising factor in traffic accidents and fatalities in the United States. In the southwest, Arizona was ranked one of the worst.

The National Safety Council reported that 1 out of 4 car accidents in the United States is caused by texting while driving, leading to over 1.6 million crashes each year. Eleven teen drivers die every day as a result of texting and driving, the council reported.

For over nine years, anti-texting while driving laws have been unsuccessful in Arizona. However, there is a new solution that could crack down on this issue.

Starting on Feb. 1, Tucson changed cellphone usage while driving to a primary offense. After a 30-day warning period, a violation will carry a minimum $143 fine, city spokesperson Lane Mandle said in an interview with KJZZ.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety 2017 report there are no states that ban all cellphone use for all drivers, but 37 states and Washington D.C. have cellphone bans for new or teen drivers. Forty-seven states have text message bans for all drivers, the report said.

Thirty two-year career firefighter and paramedic Tom Martell, with the LaGrange Fire District in New York, said many people don’t know how broad the term distracted driving is.

“We tend to see a good amount of young people, however we are seeing more people using their phones for driving directions and they don’t consider it distracted driving,” he said. “We can tell when people are distracted because you can see where they were driving and then have a sudden jerk to their lane of traffic.”

In desert states like Arizona, distracted driving is one of the leading causes of accidents and fatalities, the Arizona Department of Transportation confirmed.

In a 2017 study by carinsurance.com based on data from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Arizona drivers were ranked 2nd worst in the nation and 6th worst in the careless driving category. Delaware was ranked No. 1 in careless driving. 

Careless driving was responsible for killing roughly 170 people out of 962 traffic related fatalities in 2016, a significant improvement from 2015 when Arizona was ranked 3rd worst in careless driving. However, careless driving in Arizona was still the leading cause of traffic fatalities in 2016.

Education and awareness are major elements in preventing distracted driving accidents.

Mike Kellenyi, founder of the Nikki Kellenyi Foundation-People Against Distracted Driving, created PADD after his daughter was killed in a car accident one month before her senior prom. Her friend was texting while driving in Blackwood, New Jersey.

“Support for families is one of our top priorities along with education,” Kellenyi said. “Helping others live through Nikki’s death is our driving force.”

PADD members travel the country and provide education in schools and victim support for families who have lost loved ones due to distracted driving accidents. They also created, donated and installed “Stay Alive Don’t Text And Drive” signs on highways, billboards and schools across the nation.

Kellenyi said that many people ignore distracted driving laws because they don’t realize how quickly harmful it can become.

“They don’t think drifting from lane to lane is bad, no one thinks about the split-second decision needed to save a life,” he said.

University of Arizona senior Katie Paquette caused a distracted driving accident her junior year of high school when she was typing in her home address into the car’s GPS system.

The person in front of her stopped short and she rear ended them going 30 miles per hour. The front of her car was smashed. The person she hit was a 70-year-old man who hurt his neck, so an ambulance was called.

“I felt so guilty because I was in my dad’s car and also shouldn’t have been using the GPS while I was driving, it was totally my fault,” Paquette said.

After her accident, she has been paranoid about texting and driving and when other people do it while she is in the car with them.

“It literally takes one second of your eyes not being on the road to get into an accident,” she said. “You don’t know if other people on the road aren’t paying attention.”

Drunk driving campaigns helped reduce drunk driving accidents in the U.S, an article the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Motor Vehicle Safety stated.

Kellenyi hopes that PADD can do the same for distracted driving awareness, but he knows that there is a long road ahead.

“Sadly, tens of thousands of innocent victims will die before society looks at distracted drivers like they do drunk drivers,” he said.

Emily Homa is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at jhoma@email.arizona.edu.

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