Texting and talking on a cellphone while driving are illegal in Maryland, and most people know it's dangerous, yet the crashes continue as distracted drivers cause thousands of injuries and deaths every year.
Trauma centers around the state want to curb the practice and plan various events Wednesday to urge people to keep their eyes on the road.
"Here's an injury that is preventable," said Carole Mays, director of the trauma and injury specialty care program at the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, which coordinates emergency services in the state. "We want people to understand what they can do."
Drivers can put the phone in the back seat, turn it off or just put it aside, she said. They can adopt technology tricks; for example, her phone automatically replies to text messages while she's driving to say she's unavailable.
Drivers can make sure they are dressed and fed before getting in the car, so they have their hands on the wheel, and not let their minds wander as they drive.
Officials believe, however, that widespread change requires a cultural shift, as happened with attitudes about wearing seat belts and driving drunk. That means education, environmental changes such as new technology and enforcement of driving laws, said Lauren Malloy, injury prevention coordinator for the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, which is hosting a seminar Wednesday.
"When all of these elements are coupled, we see the change," Malloy said.
In Maryland, it's a primary offense to text or use a hand-held device while driving. Stiffer penalties on texting and driving were passed in 2014 in a law named for a 5-year-old South Baltimore boy named Jake Owen who died when the family car was hit from behind by a driver talking on his cellphone.
Jake's Law allows a judge to impose a sentence of a year in jail and a $5,000 fine if a driver causes an accident with serious or fatal injuries while using a phone. But Jake's mother, Susan Yum, said penalties generally need to be tougher. A citation for using a hand-held cellphone use while driving is $75.
"To make drivers change this dangerous behavior, there needs to be harsher penalties as that was instrumental in decreasing incidences of drunk driving," Yum said. "Much like with drinking and driving, there were many awareness campaigns about the dangers of it, but it was still prevalent because individuals think that they are the ones who can do it safely."
She pointed to a 2011-2012 study by University of California San Diego's Training, Research and Education for Driving Safety that found 78 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 reported driving and talking on a cellphone or texting. They reported they would change their behavior if insurance companies wouldn't cover crashes related to distracted driving, if citations resulted in points on their driving record or if a first-time fine was at least $350.
For now many people haven't changed their ways, Yum said. "I walk to work most days and the number of drivers I see using a hand-held cellphone is astonishing."
Maryland State Police said they work to enforce the laws. Last April, troopers stopped 241 drivers for texting and 4,858 for talking on the phone, though not all were issued citations. April is now recognized as Distracted Driving Awareness Month
"It's a very serious situation," said Cpl. DaVaughn Parker, a state police spokesman. "You can lose your life or take someone's life, and how do you say sorry for that?"
The state Motor Vehicle Administration reported that in 2013 there were 52,732 crashes caused by distracted driving. More than 18,000 involved injuries and 166 led to deaths, down from more than 29,000 injuries and 231 deaths in 2011.
Nationally, 3,179 people were killed in 2014 in crashes caused by distracted drivers and 431,000 were injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Studies show that five seconds is the average time a driver's eyes are off the road while texting.