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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Publisher’s Notebook

• Memorial Distraction •

BY ANNE SOBLE

Driving through Malibu over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, it was obvious that the local sheriff’s department powers-that-be had assigned extra black-and-white patrol cars to Pacific Coast Highway. Speeding and DUI offenses might not be at their peak in the kind of sleepy traffic crawl that marked Memorial Day’s unofficial kickoff of the summer beach season. But there was ample evidence of the other major distraction that has taken over the accident scene—texting while driving.
Just having looked at the stats for the most recent local DUI checkpoint may have prompted my interest in holiday driving patterns. While the number of arrests and actual legal catches for various violations at the Malibu stops may seem underwhelming, that’s not the only objective of the policy. Announcing and analyzing the DUI tallies is part of a critical educational component emphasizing that driving under the influence of anything capable of distracting the driver’s attention is a serious social concern with the potential for tragic individual and community consequences.
For this reason, it is in everyone’s, as well as the community’s, interest to keep the public spotlight on the problem of distracted driving. If education does not get the message out, then penalties will have to become progressively harsher, as has been the case with traditional drunk driving law. If fatal accidents have been caused when changing a radio station or inserting a CD, is it not readily understandable that a heated exchange with a family member or conducting a complicated business transaction requires the processing of so much information or the reining in of so much emotion that a stop sign can be missed, or a rear-view mirror not checked?
To no great surprise, studies indicate texting distraction is a more prevalent concern among younger drivers. Checkpoints don’t address this. Checkpoints are timed for older drivers who dine out. They have to be reformatted to monitor student-age drivers after school let-out times and young adults after sports and other social activities geared to those demographics. Some 45 percent of teens acknowledge that they text or email when behind the wheel, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The same study indicated that 31 percent of U.S. drivers aged 18 to 64 drove while texting.
The numbers are still in flux, but it appears that injuries caused by texting already outpace drunken-driving injuries in some areas and demographics. In one set of studies, more than 300,000 injuries to teens were attributed to texting, while drinking and driving caused 282,000. The gap continues to widen. Correlations of texting data with years of driving experience, number of people in vehicles, and age-related proclivities for speed and high-powered cars, add to the concern that the spotlight needs to be turned full force on texting.
It wasn’t until society got serious about drunk driving that resources became available for checkpoints. The texting accident numbers now warrant the same allocation of resources to address drivers whose thoughts are focused elsewhere while they maneuver several thousand pounds of metal and other material on Malibu’s roads.

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