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Distracted driving — are we getting the message?

Have you had this experience on the road? You are driving home or to work or school and suddenly, a car near you behaves erratically — perhaps follows another vehicle too closely, drifts into another lane or fails to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. You look closer and then you see it — the telltale cellphone in the hand. The person had been talking or texting or reading and not giving full attention to the road ahead. Very often, this just gives a brief scare. Sometimes, the results are far worse.

In an average year, 158 Marylanders lose their lives in vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver. There are any number of things that can “distract” a driver, but cell phone use — especially texting, which requires the user to divert their eyes from the road (a 5-second glance at 55 miles per hour representing a football field-long distraction) — has become the most alarming. It’s a problem the nation, including Maryland, has made some progress on in recent years but only modestly so. While the number of fatalities fell from 246 in 2012 to 179 in 2016 (a 27 percent drop), the overall number of crashes with a distracted driver actually rose slightly — from 52,625 to 56,280.

That’s not a lot of improvement given recent efforts to educate drivers, particularly young people, on the dangers of texting while driving. And Maryland represents just a fraction of the problem. In 2016, 3,450 people were killed in distracted driving incidents nationwide, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s roughly the equivalent of every man, woman and child in North East or Boonsboro in Western Maryland or Princess Anne on the Eastern Shore. As much attention as school shootings have received, it would take dozens, if not hundreds, of Sandy Hooks to even approach that kind of carnage.

Texting while driving is against the law in Maryland, as it is in all but a handful of states across the country. There’s also been a movement to ratchet up the penalties, run public service announcements in local media and conduct high-profile enforcement actions (featuring police ticketing offenders in concentrated numbers). All have proved helpful, none is sufficient by itself. The problem appears to be that too many drivers make a calculations that a brief distraction isn’t all that dangerous when, of course, that’s exactly what drivers in those serious accidents likely thought — up until that fateful moment of collision.

That lack of seriousness might help explain why lawmakers in Annapolis recently failed to increase the consequences of driving with a cellphone in hand. The measure would have raised the penalty to $500 from the current tiered system in which a first offense involves a maximum $75 fine, a second offense $125 and it’s $175 for any thereafter. The House passed one version, the Senate another, and the two sides could not work out their differences before the 90-day session ended. That’s unfortunate given the message such an increase might have sent to drivers — in Fiscal 2017, Maryland law enforcement agencies wrote 31,286 citations for that offense.

But no matter the size of the fine, are police writing enough tickets to distracted drivers? Those 31,286 citations may sound like a lot, but given there are far more vehicle collisions involving distracted drivers each year — an average 52,473 in Maryland over the last five years — it probably isn’t. A recent survey of drivers by AAA found that nearly half admit to cellphone distracted driving. Those same respondents admitted it’s dangerous to do so (with texting, it’s a whopping 78 percent who acknowledge it’s a serious threat). So what will it take to curb the behavior? Somehow, PSAs and billboards are not sufficient. There has to be some negative reinforcement, too.

April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and its message this year has been that “multitasking is a myth.” NHTSA has been running its own campaign: “U Drive. U Text. U Pay.” All are words to live by. Whether they do much good will be known soon enough. May is generally one of the worst months of the year for distracted driving with more crashes than any month other than October.

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