No texts, no wrecks.
That is the simple message county and state law enforcement officers are trying to convey to Loudoun County drivers. Unfortunately, that message is landing on too many people who are off the grid.
“It’s a very dangerous trend and there are so many people out there doing it,” Loudoun County Sheriff Mike Chapman said. “It’s pretty common for all of us to pull up next to someone on Route 7 or Highway 28 and see them looking down at their phone. It’s very common and it’s a very dangerous thing to do behind the wheel of a car.”
The statistics are overwhelming. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 3,477 traffic deaths were caused by distracted driving in 2015. The National Safety Council reports that cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes each year and nearly 330,000 injuries occur each year from accidents caused by texting while driving.
According to AAA, 11 teens die every day as a result of texting while driving, and a AAA poll found that while 94 percent of teen drivers acknowledge the danger, 35 percent admitted to doing it anyway.
While it seems to be a behavior people easily recognize in others and readily admit is dangerous, many people find themselves taking the risk, anyway.
“I think human beings have a subconscious reaction that when you hear a phone ring you jump up and want to see what it is,” said Deputy First Class Matthew Moats of the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office. “That was true back when telephones hung on the wall and now that it is in your pants pocket. It draws your attention. That doesn’t alter the dangers of it.”
There are many things that can distract a driver, from pets and kids to food and beverages. But the rise of technology has brought about a new wave of problems for first responders.
“With the current environment we have with the jammed roads here in Loudoun County, any time you take your attention off the road you are placing you and the people in the car in a situation where you could be involved in a serious crash,” said 1st Sgt. Alvin Blanenkship, Virginia State Police Area Commander for Loudoun County. “The reality is our society is so electronics driven. A lot of our crashes here in Loudoun County are rear-end crashes. Anything that takes a driver’s eyes off the road and hands off the steering wheel can contribute to that.”
Virginia’s neighbor to the north, Maryland, has a very strict and simple law with regards to driving and the use of hand-held electronic devices. In a word – Don’t. In another word – Never.
In the case of Virginia, the law is much more lenient and, importantly, much more difficult to enforce. The Virginia law (Code No. 46.2 -1078.1) only applies to the actual sending or reading of a text message and excludes GPS, talking on a cell phone or any factory installed or mounted devices.
The code specifies that to be in violation, a person must “manually enter multiple letters in the device” … or … “Read any email or text message transmitted to the device or stored within the device.”
“I’m kind of jealous of Maryland, honestly,” LCSO Deputy First Class Garry Epple said. “We have to use unmarked vehicles, usually higher so we can look down into vehicles. We have to actually observe them manipulating the device multiple times while driving.”
Loudoun County runs operations roughly on a monthly a basis to step up enforcement and reduce the dangers of texting while driving. According to LCSO Public Information Officer Alex Kowalski, the first such operating was conducted in December 2016 and there have been 10 follow-up operations since then – six in the western part of the county and four in the Dulles South area.
It is illegal in Virginia for anyone 18 and younger to use a cell phone while driving. While this indicates the distracted driving is particularly serious among younger people, it is not limited to Millennials.
“I think it’s universal,” Chapman said. “I do think young people who are a lot more computer savvy and have grown up on cell phones and iPhones so I think you see a lot of younger people doing this. That’s why I think it’s important to get the message out and we have a brochure we hand out to kids who are going through the licensing ceremony.”
Loudoun County has a wide variety of roadways and traffic patterns, but is almost void of long stretches of open highway on which a driver can set the cruise control and relax. That makes distracted driving, particularly trying to send or read text message, a crash waiting to happen.
“The distance you travel (sending or reading a short text) can be more than a football field,” Moats said. “That’s 100 yards where you don’t see what is going on in the street and on the roadway in front of you. If a person in front of you has to stop suddenly, you are into their bumper.”
While other distractions can cause accidents, sending or reading texts is dangerous on several levels.
“It’s worse than the radio or eating,” Moats said. “They have their eyes on the screen, their hands are involved in something and are off the steering wheel and the intellectual part of their brains are focused on working the hand-held device. You have to look away and use your motor skills to send an email or text.”
While law enforcement officials agree there are loopholes in Virginia’s statutes, Blankenship emphasizes that laws and the enforcement of them are not the solution to distracted driving.
“It truly is up to individual driver to police themselves and teach their kids in the proper way to drive,” Blankenship said. “It’s not something we are going to correct just with enforcement. It is a social issue that has to be addressed at home and it has to start with a good example.”