In accordance with April being National Distracted Driving Month and Texas Department of Transportation numbers revealing nearly 1 in 5 crashes in the state involved distracted driving, local efforts are underway to address what law enforcement says is a growing concern.
Law enforcement officials said distracted driving is any activity that takes your attention away from driving – noting distractions can include anything from texting and talking on a mobile phone to eating and drinking, applying makeup, shaving, reading, programming a navigation system, watching a video and even adjusting the radio.
The Texas Department of Transportation said in 2017, 19 percent of vehicle crashes on Texas roads involved distracted driving - referencing those 100,687 crashes resulted in 444 deaths and 2,889 serious injuries.
In the Amarillo District, which is comprised of Armstrong, Carson, Dallam, Deaf Smith, Gray, Hansford, Hartley, Hemphill, Hutchinson, Lipscomb, Moore, Ochiltree, Oldham, Potter, Randall, Roberts, and Sherman counties, the number of motor vehicle traffic crashes that involved distracted driving totaled 578 in 2017, resulting in three deaths and 18 serious injuries.
“It’s extremely concerning that drivers still choose to give their attention to things other than the road when they’re behind the wheel,” Texas Department of Transportation Executive Director James Bass, said. “As a society, we’re more connected than ever to our devices and easily tempted to multitask, but drivers need to understand all of these various distractions can lead to a tragic outcome.”
Amarillo Police Department Public Information Officer Cpl. Jeb Hilton said the department has received state funding targeting distracted driving and other potential moving infractions.
“Every year the department receives a STEP Grant from the Texas Department of Transportation,” he said. “These extra funds are used to have more officers on patrol enforcing any traffic-related violations, such as speed, alcohol, cell phone use and others. We did not have any fatal accidents in the city limits that were the direct result of distracted driving last year.”
Hilton said the City already had a municipal code in place making it illegal to use a hand held electronic device while driving prior to the state law being enacted in September 2017 – adding the department has not experienced a noticeable increase or reduction since the state law was put into place.
Meanwhile, later this month Amarillo High School will host an activity designed to give students a virtual distracted driving experience.
School officials said the virtual reality experience is an open cube-like structure, featuring three textured art walls - a victim memorial wall, a suspended keys wall and crushed car pieces wall - enabling visitors to explore and interact while waiting in line.
Once inside the cube, the viewer puts on VR goggles and begins to watch an interactive video that features victim stories and dialogue/visuals about the dangers of distracted driving. The objective is to convince participants they’re not immune from causing harm to others or themselves if they drive distracted.
Law enforcement officials said preventive measures can be taken to combat distracted driving, including pulling over to a safe location; giving driving 100 percent of your attention, 100 percent of the time; pulling into a parking lot before diverting your attention to your phone or other activity; putting your phone away or turning it off before getting behind the wheel; and telling friends, family and co-workers you won’t respond to calls or texts when driving.
Law enforcement is looking for drivers with their heads down distracted by their phone, officials said, noting a first offense for texting while driving is punishable by a fine up to $99; any subsequent offense carries a fine up to $200.
Since 2009, more than 100 cities, including Amarillo, have adopted one or more of the following three types of cell phone ordinances:
Ban on all uses of wireless communications devices while driving.
Ban on texting while driving.
Ban on texting and other manual uses of wireless communication devices while driving.