Cellphone addicts, distracted drivers, Overland Park police chief wants your attention

The next time you’re driving in traffic, imagine you’re surrounded by addicts who may not be all that trustworthy behind the wheel.

The fact is, you likely are.

While he can’t quantify it yet, Overland Park Police Chief Frank Donchez blames cellphone addiction for growing numbers of distracted-driving accidents. The chief is using traditional and social media to issue warnings to motorists about the inherent and imminent dangers of cellphone use while driving. In one video he tweeted, a car in the 7700 block of Metcalf Avenue on Oct. 15 rear-ended and nearly flipped over another vehicle slowed by traffic.

Distracted driving — led by cellphone use — is a huge and growing problem.

“People are addicted to their cellphones. That’s the bottom line,” the chief told The Star. “Safety plays second fiddle sometimes.”

Though the department has yet to start tracking distracted-driving statistics, Donchez surmises that its incidence is likely underestimated — since embarrassed drivers might fib to get out of the $90 ticket or to avoid the disapproving glare of the insurance company.

There’s no underestimating the dangers, however. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says more than 3,600 people died from distracted driving in 2017. In a March survey by national insurance shopping site TheZebra.com, 37% of young workers said they feel pressure to text for work while driving. One insurer’s data revealed in 2016 that 96% of motorists used their phones at least once during the prior month. Likewise, AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign to curb smartphone use while driving says, alarmingly, that almost nine out of 10 people do it.

It’s not an exaggeration to say many of them are addicted. The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction estimates 10% of smartphone users are classically addicted — and one study says half of teens feel addicted.

Yet, Kansas law has failed miserably in keeping up with what is clearly an epidemic. While texting and driving is illegal, it’s nearly impossible to police; how can you tell if someone is texting, surfing or dialing?

Donchez says his officers have written just 64 tickets for texting while driving so far this year. “Considering how many violators are out there, it is a literal drop in the bucket,” he says.

Is it time for Kansas to go hands-free, and prohibit all handling of phones while driving? Donchez hopes so, anyway — and that it doesn’t take a sizable tragedy, or string of them, to get it done.

Whatever the cure, this addiction requires more treatment than what Kansas is throwing at it.