STREET SMARTS - Police get added teeth to deal with distracted drivers

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Erica Forney was just 9 years old in 2008 when she was struck head-on by a 5,000-pound SUV while riding her bike.

The driver said she had been distracted by her cell phone, but now Erica was dead. This story has received extensive coverage because of her mother's commitment to help people understand how dangerous distracted drivers can be and how everything can change in an instant.

To personalize this further, you can see Shelley Forney share her story by searching for her online. Shelley's story could just as easily be our story.

For many of us, driving while talking with our cell phones pressed to our ear has become a habit, whether for social or business reasons, it doesn't matter.

After numerous studies, it became apparent that this is a dangerous habit, and in 2005 it was found to be responsible for an estimated 2,600 deaths and 330,000 injuries across the nation.

These studies have shown that this activity is the equivalent of driving while intoxicated. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety states that cell phone users are four times more likely to crash than non-distracted drivers. However, a Virginia Tech study found that texting while driving puts people at an even greater risk -- 20 times, to be exact.

Studies show that of all the driving distractions, cell phone usage is No. 1 and is responsible for 25 percent of all traffic collisions.

Surveys have shown 80 percent of respondents say they are in support of a ban on text messaging and e-mailing while driving. Two-thirds of these respondents say they support laws restricting phone calls while driving, and the state Legislature has responded.

Effective June 10, law enforcement officers in Washington will be able to pull over drivers they observe texting or talking on a cell phone without a hands-free device. Drivers who have an instructional permit or an intermediate driver's license cannot use their cell phones or other wireless devices in any manner while operating a motor vehicle.

There are exceptions to this law, however. If the holder is reporting illegal activity, summoning medical or emergency help or trying to prevent injury to a person or property, they will not be ticketed. This law also does not apply to drivers operating an authorized emergency vehicle, and tow truck drivers responding to a disabled vehicle. There are more details found in Substitute Senate Bill 6345, which can be found online.

Using a hands-free device is a step in the right direction, as it makes it easier for the driver to survey the roadway and attend to those tasks that require both hands such as signaling.

Unfortunately, even talking on a hands-free device still reduces the amount of brain function used in driving by 37 percent, and what about texting? These are part of the distracted drivers that are responsible for 6,000 traffic deaths annually.

There are many hands-free options available for drivers that are under $100, including the Bluetooth that hangs on your ear and devices that clip on to the sun-visor. If you think that is too costly, the fine for violating the cell phone law is $124, and I expect most people that are ticketed will then go out and spend money for a hands-free device. For more money, some GPS navigation devices are now including blue tooth technology.

Law enforcement is going to have an uphill battle motivating drivers to go hands-free.

We must learn to let voice mail take messages and return calls when we reach our destination or pull to the curb to talk when we believe it cannot wait.

There are many stories similar to Erica's, where lives are destroyed and families devastated all because someone believed that it wouldn't happen to them. We all need to keep reminding ourselves that driving is a full-time job in order to keep our streets safe.

Capt. Gary Bainter is Patrol Division commander for the Walla Walla Police Department. He can be reached at gbainter@ci.walla-walla.wa.us or 524-4372.

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