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Texting drivers add another danger to holiday traffic

POSTED: November 22, 2012 11:59 p.m.

This weekend, law enforcement agencies are making concerted efforts to reduce traffic injuries and fatalities, but one way motorists can avoid accidents is by not being distracted, authorities say.

Texting while driving has become one of the main distractions, but authorities have not issued many citations for the offense, in part because it is difficult to catch and difficult to enforce.

In Gainesville, police issued seven texting and driving citations in 2011.

So far this year, two have been issued.

Hall County Sheriff’s Office numbers were unavailable Wednesday, but the office’s spokesman said the agency has issued a “relatively low number of citations” for the offense.

Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks wrote in an email that, “There is some degree of difficulty in trying to determine if a driver is texting or perhaps looking up a number to make a call, or just looking at the phone to answer a call, etc. The officer has to be able to substantiate the charge.”

Those who are caught incur a $150 fee and one point on their license.

“The reality is that the occurrence of the violation can be so fleeting that officers are rarely in a position to observe and realize that a violation has occurred,” Sean Black, an attorney in Northeast Georgia, wrote in an email.

Drivers are not required to admit they were texting because of the Constitutional self-incrimination protection in the Fifth Amendment, Black wrote, adding that privacy concerns prevent an officer from looking at a driver’s phone to check for evidence.

Some 37 percent of Georgians have said they text and drive, said Andrew Turnage, public information coordinator of the University of Georgia’s Georgia Traffic Injury Prevention Institute.

Studies show that texting and driving impairs the driver at levels quantifiable to intoxication, if not worse.

And drivers who are texting are 23 times more likely to crash, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Last year, there were 3,840 crashes attributed to cellphone use/distracted driving in Georgia, according to the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

Nine were fatal and 955 resulted in serious injuries.

Exacerbating the enforcement problem is the nature of the problem itself.

“It’s really difficult to change people’s behavior unless you can change their attitude, and that’s one of the goals of education on the front end,” he said.

One of the ways the Governor’s  Office of Highway Safety is attempting to change people’s behavior is by using an emotional appeal.

The issue is deeply personal for Alex Sorohan, 18, whose older brother Caleb died in a head-on collision moments after several texts were sent from his phone Dec. 15, 2009.

“We want to change peoples’ minds about it so that they don’t do it,” Sorohan said.

She accompanied Gainesville resident Harris Blackwood, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, on a five-city informational tour on traffic injury and fatality prevention on Tuesday.

All age groups are guilty of the habit, but for young people who have grown up attached to their phones day and night, the message is especially important.

“It’s about teenagers talking to other teenagers. Just trying to get the word out,” Sorohan said.

Increased dialogue is needed, Turnage said.

“It’s just one of those acceptable losses we don’t talk enough about,” he said.

Nationally, approximately 22 percent of all crashes result in fatalities.

Of those, 16 percent are caused by some sort of distraction occurring within 3 seconds of the crash, Turnage said.

Texting, according to distracation.gov, takes drivers’ eyes off the road for almost five seconds. At 55 miles per hour, it’s like driving an entire football field blindfolded, the site states.

Blackwood emphasized it is especially important to prevent any sort of tragedy during the holiday season.

“There is no message that is worth your life,” Blackwood said.



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