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Distracted driving deaths are up

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Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Matt Bloom/Colorado Public Radio - 08/17/2023

Rachel Stein is a mom of three kids. She drives to work in south Denver every day and regularly notices dangerous cell phone behavior.

“My favorite thing to see is someone holding the cell phone in front of them, but still using their hands as though that’s somehow less distracting than holding it to their ear,” she said. 

In Colorado, it’s illegal to text and drive. But it is legal for drivers over the age of 18 to hold a phone while talking. Drivers under the age of 18 are banned from all cell phone use while driving. 

So, Stein wondered: How many accidents does cell phone use cause?

The exact number of accidents caused by cell phones is hard to pin down, though, said Sam Cole, who oversees distracted driving awareness campaigns for the Colorado Department of Transportation. “We have an epidemic of traffic deaths in Colorado,” Cole said. “Distracted driving has a lot to do with that.”

Distracted driving caused 72 deaths and more than 15,000 crashes in 2022, Cole said. But CDOT’s crash numbers account for all kinds of distracted driving, from cell phone use to eating.

That makes it hard to pinpoint exactly how many crashes happen because of someone using their phone. More than half of drivers in Colorado use their phone while driving, according to a CDOT survey of motorists. 

Law enforcement has tried to crack down, but the state patrol said it issued only 138 citations for improper cell phone use in 2022. Cole said it can be difficult for officers to enforce the rules.

“The number of crashes that involve a distracted driver in this state are very underrepresented,” he said. “If you’re driving, and you take your eyes off the road, and you hit somebody in front of you, you’re not going to perhaps admit that.”

Ideas for solutions include law changes and more public messaging about the dangers of distracted driving. Lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to pass a hands-free law in recent years.

CDOT is launching a new ad campaign focused on the dangers of texting while driving. The commercials highlight the damage drivers can do while turning their focus away from the road. 

“People really underestimate how long it takes to read a text or send a message when they’re driving,” Cole said. 

Drivers going 65 miles per hour can travel the length of a football field in five seconds, which is the average time it takes to read a text. “It’s scary,” Cole said. 

Cole’s advice? Just don’t use your phone at all. If you have to make a call, use a hands-free system if your car allows it. If your car doesn’t have one, pull over to make the call, or put it on speaker, and keep both hands on the wheel. 

“Part of the problem is that people have used their phones hundreds of times while driving without a problem, and there’s a false sense of security,” Cole said. “But I guarantee, it will catch up with you, and you will get into a crash if you’re somebody that’s always on your phone when you drive.”

For more from Colorado Public Radio, visit www.cpr.org.