December 6, 2017
EFFORT UNDERWAY TO PENALIZE DISTRACTED DRIVING
By: Melody Cox
COLUMBIA – Columbia could become another in the growing list of cities in Missouri with a ban on distracted driving.
The Columbia City Council discussed a proposed ordinance amendment to the careful and prudent driving ordinance at the meeting on Nov. 20, 2017.
The ordinance would add a new section clarifying what it means to drive carelessly. This includes anything that directs the driver’s attention away from the path of travel or attention of the vehicle. The proposed amendment cites examples of serious distractions, such as manually inputting information into a GPS or turning one’s head substantially away from the road.
Distracted driving is a prevalent issue in the United States. In 2015, 10 percent of fatal crashes, 15 percent of injury crashes and 14 percent of all police-reported motor vehicle traffic crashes were reported as distraction-affected crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In Columbia, a series of pedestrian deaths in late 2014 through early 2015 where four pedestrians died and six were seriously injured prompted the city to take a closer look at the issue.
Vision Zero, a strategy for eliminating traffic deaths, contributed to the council’s proposal of an amendment addressing distracted driving. The Vision Zero movement started in Sweden in the late 1990s, and it didn’t come to the U.S. until Chicago, New York City and other cities started to adopt the strategy in the early 2010s.
Columbia became the first city in Missouri to adopt Vision Zero in December 2016.
The council voted unanimously on adopting the strategy. It also set a goal to have “zero traffic deaths and fatalities by the year 2030,” according to the city manager in a council memo.
Fourth Ward City Councilman Ian Thomas thinks the initiative is a necessary change.
“It’s death and serious injuries to people, and it’s unnecessary. Considering that people’s lives are at stake, to me, it’s a no brainer that that’s what we want to do,” Thomas said.
Heather Cole, the Vision Zero Project Manager for Columbia, agrees with Thomas that the city needed a change, citing statistics that crash fatalities and severe injuries in Columbia were double Seattle’s and New York City’s before adopting the program.
“We get a poor report card on the traffic fatality rate here. We are one of the higher crash rates,” Cole said. “That’s a big deal for [Missouri Department of Transportation]. Having cities adopt that [Vision Zero] and working on it at a local level, they are all about it.”
Sgt. Scott White, the Public Information and Education Officer for Missouri State Highway Patrol Troop F, sees the perils of distracted driving on a daily basis.
“It can be as simple as someone veering off the road because they weren’t paying attention,” White said.
Even though inattention is the leading cause of crashes, White said distracted driving can sometimes go unreported.
“When working a crash, people won’t mention they were on the phone,” White said. “Sometimes, there’s more than just one factor - like someone might be speeding because they were using their phone.”
Distracted or inattentive driving caused only one of the 32 crashes in Columbia this year. In Boone County, distracted driving caused 40 of the 841 crashes this year, according to data from the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
White said this data shows how unreported inattentive driving is.
White wants to help people see the issue of distracted driving by raising their awareness of driving habits. He said they should ask themselves two questions: How often do you see other people checking their phones, and how often do you yourself check your phone?
Another way of spotting distracted driving is recognizing the warning signs of a drunk driver. Like a drunk driver, a distracted driver usually has inconsistent speeds (speed up, then slow down), crosses over the boundaries of the lane or weaves in and out of traffic, according to White.
White also wants to help parents realize they need to be role models for their children.
“If you’re modeling dangerous behavior behind the wheel, your kid will see that. Next thing you know, they will be distracted when they start driving,” White said.
Deana Dothage, the director of First Impact, a traffic safety education program, also thinks parents are the key to help younger drivers learn the rules of the road.
“We work with parents to teach them the law [Graduated Driver License law] and to supervise their kids to follow the law,” Dothage said.
Dothage’s passion for teaching traffic safety to parents is personal.
Her father died in a crash with a drunk driver in 1973, and her brother died in a crash after losing control of his car when he was 19 years old in 1974.
She also has a 16-year-old new driver, and she’s trying to make sure she is doing everything she can to teach him how to drive safely.
Dothage agrees with Thomas and White that a change needs to be made.
“I think we have a good reason to support the new amendments and laws in Columbia because no one should do it [drive distractedly],” Dothage said. “It would eliminate parents opportunity to do it, helping their children to not do it as well.”
UPDATE: The Columbia City Council voted and passed an ordinance making distracted driving illegal within the city limits in late 2017.