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Don’t be distracted

Even though the price of gasoline is at an extremely high level, Americans are still eager to take to the roads.

Among all the issues motorists might encounter, one of the most troubling falls under the category of distracted driving. Which means it’s important we are looking for ways to reduce — or eliminate — a “… pervasive, yet preventable, traffic safety problem.”

That’s the opinion reached in a report issued in June by the Governors Highway Safety Association and General Motors.

It’s a real problem on U.S. roads, the report — “Directing Drivers’ Attention: A State Highway Safety Roadmap for Combating Distracted Driving” — reveals.

The numbers should certainly make everyone who uses the roads take notice. They show that 3,142 people died in distracted driving crashes in the United States in 2020, and an estimated 424,000 people were injured, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports. Those totals likely are higher, the agency said, because distracted driving often is under reported.

There’s a big difference between the number of males and females who are involved in distracted driving accidents, NHTSA reports. Overall, male drivers were involved in 2,125 fatal crashes, while females were involved in 781 fatal crashes in 2020. Those numbers hold up in our region — in Ohio, 38 male drivers and 16 female drivers were involved in fatal crashes; in Pennsylvania, it was 42 males and 12 females; and in West Virginia, the totals were six males and one female.

GHSA is billed as the voice of states on highway safety. It’s a nonprofit association that represents the highway safety offices of states, territories, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Members are appointed by governors, and they administer federal and state highway safety funds and help implement highway safety plans.

In its report on distracted driving, the association says the problem covers several different levels of activity and cites information from AAA that includes mind off driving (such as talking with passengers, daydreaming or using a hands-free phone); hands off the wheel (including personal grooming, reading maps, eating, texting while driving and changing music) and eyes off the road (including looking at billboards, checking yourself in the mirror and gawking at crash scenes.)

What it also reveals is that 15 percent of all police-reported traffic crashes listed distraction as a factor, and that drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 were most likely to be distracted at the time of a fatal crash — 344 of 3.968 drivers. Sadly, there were 566 nonoccupants killed in distracted-driving crashes in 2020. That group included pedestrians and bicyclists — and that shows that even if we choose to travel by something other than a motor vehicle, we aren’t completely safe.

What’s even more troubling is that while the majority of drivers know that it’s wrong to use their phones for calling or texting while they are driving, they do it anyway. Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention bear that out — they show that 39 percent of high school students who drove in the last 30 days said they texted or sent an e-mail at least once while driving. For students 18 and older, that number hits 60 percent.

Those figures, however, seem to cover all ages, as data from the AAA that is included in the report shows. While 80 percent of drivers think that talking on a hand-held phone is extremely or very dangerous, 37 percent of them do it. And when it comes to texting, 95 percent of drivers said it was extremely or very dangerous — but 23 percent said they did it once in the past 30 days and 34 percent said they had read on a hand-held device while driving.

Of those messages, the GHSA report said a survey commissioned by insurance.com said 29 percent of those texts were to report an urgent situation, 21 percent were to tell someone they had arrived at their destination, 19 percent were to reply to a text message and 11 percent were for work purposes.

That last one can prove to be expensive — the report shows that in 2019, distracted driving crashes cost employers $18.8 billion.

Local, state and federal officials, as well as the companies that manufacture cars and trucks, all have ideas about how to battle distracted driving. And changes they make can help — whether it be in the form of rumble strips, median barriers, better signage and creation of targeted enforcement zones or in-vehicle technology.

But all of that means nothing unless we all are willing to put down the phone and stay alert while we are driving.

(Gallabrese, a resident of Steubenville, is executive editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times.)

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