Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Chad Crittenden conducted some research on distracted driving recently while stopped at a busy Wichita traffic light.
What he saw was enough to surprise even a seasoned trooper.
“I counted 14 that went through the intersection, and 11 were either talking or texting on their phone,” Crittenden said.
There were 432 traffic fatalities in Kansas in 2016, an increase of 22 percent from 2015, according to the Kansas Department of Transportation.
Nationwide, the number of traffic fatalities increased 6 percent from 2015 to 2016, according to a report by the National Safety Council, a nonprofit organization that works with lawmakers, federal automobile safety regulators and other safety groups.
Crittenden thinks distracted driving is a key reason more people are dying on the state’s highways, even though cars are built to be safer than ever.
“It’s a huge problem,” Crittenden said. “We can drive down the street and see the number of people on their phones, eating food, looking at GPS and manipulating other technology devices. The list goes on and on.”
Lower gas prices have meant more driving time and more people on the road, also factors in the increase in deaths, Crittenden and others say.
“We’ve already had 58 fatalities this year,” Crittenden said on the last day of February. “November (2016) was a horrible month — we had over 50 deaths that month.”
More driving, more crashes
The National Safety Council says that 40,200 people died nationwide as a result of traffic crashes in 2016. The number marks a 14 percent increase from 2014 and represents the first time since 2007 that the total exceeded 40,000.
The 14 percent jump, according to the organization’s numbers, represents the biggest two-year increase in U.S. roadway fatalities in more than 50 years.
The organization cautions that the 2016 numbers could change as more information about last year’s crashes becomes available.
“The economy is always the canary in the coal mine,” said Ken Kolosh, a statistics manager with the council. “We have been examining traffic fatalities since 1913, and we know they ebb and flow with the economy. When our dollars improve, our roadways become more dangerous.
“However, we experienced a 3 percent increase in miles driven and a 6 percent increase in deaths, meaning something else is at play.”
The average price for a gallon of unleaded gasoline in Kansas was $3.19 in 2014, according to motorist club AAA. For 2016, the yearly average in the state had dropped to $1.96 per gallon, and most gas stations in Wichita sold a gallon of unleaded for about $2.05 at the end of February.
According to National Safety Council numbers, only Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa and New Mexico saw a bigger percentage increase in traffic deaths than Kansas from 2015 through last year.
In Wichita, traffic death totals have remained mostly the same for the past five years. From 2012 to 2016, the city had 23, 27, 22, 26 and 26 fatalities, according to data from the city’s police department.
Jim Hanni, vice president of public affairs for AAA in Kansas, agreed that lower fuel prices are only partly to blame.
“Distracted driving also seems to be playing an important role,” he said.
Both hands on the wheel
While Crittenden knows the increase in deaths likely has something to do with fuel prices, he said he also thinks drivers are more distracted. He would like to see more restrictions on cellphone use while driving.
“I wish we had a hands-free law,” he said. “If officers observed a driver holding a phone, they would be in violation.
“This would not stop the cognitive distraction of talk-to-text or talking on the phone, but it could possibly reduce the number of drivers manipulating devices.”
In most places in Kansas, it’s not illegal to talk on a mobile phone while driving — exceptions include those with farm permits and restricted licenses — but it is illegal to text while driving.
In Manhattan, however, drivers within the city limits are prohibited from talking/listening on a mobile phone. It is not illegal, according to state law, for most drivers to use a mobile device’s navigation function while driving.
The problem, according to some in law enforcement, is that enforcing the no-texting law can be difficult. For instance, if an officer suspects a driver was texting, the driver can simply say he was using his phone to get directions.
If the driver doesn’t want to allow the officer to see his phone, he doesn’t have to hand it over. However, distracted driving, Crittenden said, often leads to other infractions that can be easier to prove.
“If I see someone on their phone and it’s obvious they are not dialing a number and I stop them, it’s my word against theirs,” Crittenden said. “They could say they were using GPS or going through their phone book.
“As officers, we look for traffic violations — such as failing to yield or failure to maintain a single lane — which are often easy to prove due to being on camera.”
‘The driver is the problem’
As technology continues to advance in the automotive industry, vehicles are becoming safer, Crittenden said. While there has been much talk about the advance of self-driving vehicles, humans still make the vast majority of decisions on the highways.
“The driver is the problem,” Crittenden said. “It’s an epidemic.
“Statistics show that talking on the phone puts us four times more likely to be involved in a crash than not talking on the phone. It doesn’t matter whether it’s hands-free or hand-held.”
While it seems as if using a hands-free option on a mobile phone while driving would be safer than manually texting, research has shown this is not the case.
According to a 2012 report released by the National Safety Council, more than 30 studies conducted by scientists from around the globe showed that the use of hands-free devices offered no safety benefit.
“We know that hands-free and texting are equally distracting,” said Hanni, the AAA Kansas executive. “It’s a matter of cognitive distraction where a person’s mind is somewhere else.
“Eventually, we think the automation of vehicles could reduce traffic crashes by about 80 percent. Right now, though, there is a lot of trepidation on the part of the public, so that would be a long ways off.”
For now, the number of people traveling on Kansas roadways likely won’t drop significantly (gas prices in Wichita are near $2.15 per gallon this week). People such as Crittenden hope drivers recognize that distracted driving can be deadly.
“I don’t think people understand how dangerous it can be to operate that 3,000-pound to 10,000-pound vehicle while distracted,” Crittenden said.
“Vehicles are the safest they’ve ever been and roads are the safest they’ve ever been. Those aren’t the issues.”
Tips for safe driving
▪ Make sure everyone in the vehicle is buckled up, no matter how short the trip.
▪ Put the mobile device away — don’t be distracted while driving.
▪ Never drive while impaired.
▪ Drive defensively.
▪ Above all, just drive.
Source: Kansas Department of Transportation
Kansas roadway fatalities past 5 years
2016: 432 (unofficial number)
Source: Kansas Department of Transportation
U.S. motor vehicle deaths past 4 years
Source: National Safety Council