By ISAAC CONSTANS
Capital News Service
LANSING — Michigan drivers have more incentive to keep their eyes on the road now than ever, as more eyes will be watching them throughout the month.
More than 170 law enforcement agencies will be out in force in April to cut down on the frequency of distracted driving incidents, the Office of Highway Safety Planning said.
Meanwhile, a new bill proposes harsher penalties for distracted driving and changes to what qualifies as distracted driving. It’s pending in the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
The drive is part of a national campaign, National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, to reduce easily preventable deaths. Michigan reported 28 deaths as a result of distracted driving in 2015.
“We will focus our patrols on people that are distracted out there, as we do each and every day,” said 1st Lt. Joseph Thomas, the commander of the State Police Lansing post.
“But during the month of April, we’re taking a harder look at people that are out there and driving distracted. And we would just recommend that when you get behind the wheel, you think about your primary focus, and that is driving safely,” Thomas said.
In 2015, 7,516 crashes in Michigan were the products of distracted driving, according to the Office of Highway Safety Planning. Of those, 753 accidents involved cell phone use.
Distracted driving extends beyond cell phones. From applying makeup to being deeply immersed in conversation, drivers who focus on anything but the road neglect the duties of the road, Thomas said.
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Martin Howrylak, R-Troy, would extend the range of ticket-able actions. The proposed law would incorporate laptops and gaming devices as types of distracted driving, although GPS and two-way radios would still be exempt.
Howrylak’s proposal would increase the fine for a first offense to $250, up from the current $100. A second offense would result in a $500 penalty, up from $200, and one point would be added to the offender’s driver’s license. The third offense would add two points to the driver’s license — increasing insurance rates and leading to possible license suspensions or terminations.
In Marquette, police are not waiting on new legislation to crack down. Efforts had been underway to curb distracted driving prior to April, although there is an increased emphasis for the month.
“Yes, April is Distracted Driving Awareness month, but it’s something that we focus on year-round. April just kind of brings the spotlight on it,” Marquette Police Captain of Patrol Operations Mike Laurila said. “We have taken a proactive role. Daily, officers are assigned to monitor this and enforce this.”
In Marquette, distracted driving has been a priority, as it endangers fellow drivers and pedestrians alike.
“We’re in a community up here where we have a lot of people that are walking. Biking is huge up here,” Laurila said.
Laurila said it’s important to educate people using a two-pronged approach. The Marquette Police Department provides a public campaign, festooning banners around its buildings to draw public interest. Meanwhile, the social media team stamps messages across its pages, such as “one text or call could wreck it all.”
When pulling over a distracted driver, officers also inform the driver about the danger of driving distracted. Whether issuing a ticket or warning, officers emphasize the severity of the potential consequences.
“It’s very important in our role as police officers to look for those violating this and either educate that person or issue a citation if warranted,” Laurila said. “Let’s face it: Somebody’s out there distracted driving — whether they’re texting or their are eyes off the road — not only is it putting their life in danger, but it’s putting your life in danger, my life in danger, our family’s life in danger.”
However, the problem of distracted driving is still unrecognized by many, said Suzy Carter, the executive director of the Lansing Area Safety Council.
“Drivers really haven’t recognized the seriousness of distracted driving,” Carter said. “Distracted driving is the equivalent of driving while intoxicated.”
That’s where education comes into play.
Law enforcement agencies have tried to get that point across, as has McLaren Northern Michigan, a health care referral center in Petoskey. Visiting schools and classes, the two carry statistics and simulators to show that lack of awareness can be lethal when traveling in a heavy, fast-moving vehicle.
Carter said children and parents can be the most impacted by personal stories of those who have suffered as a result of distracted driving.
“I think that the personal stories, the more that those stories are told, they make an impression on people,” Carter said. “That could have been my daughter or my son that was killed by distracted driving. It hurts for the loved ones involved, but it’s a very important message to tell and keep telling.”
Despite the recognition that distracted driving has garnered, prevention lags behind. While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that fewer drivers make calls, significantly more use other mobile phone features than a decade ago, although rates have plateaued. Younger drivers are more likely to be on their phones than older drivers, as well.
For patrol officers, however, nabbing transgressors can be difficult.
“For texting while driving, you have to be able to say you actually saw them texting the message, and that’s very difficult to do,” Thomas said.
Despite agreement among experts that the risks of distracted driving can parallel those of drunken driving, distracted driving still lacks an intense social stigma. Education is the solution, but it’s not an instant fix, Carter said.
“Unfortunately, I think it takes time, much like drinking and driving did, to really drive that message home,” Carter said.
The same could apply to laws. A 2014 research article in the Journal of Adolescent Health reported that since the enactment of Michigan’s law banning texting while driving, only “minor” improvements in texting patterns and crash prevention have occurred.
General culture could make distracted driving hard to uproot, even in April.
“It’s a hard message to promote, because people think they can multitask,” Carter said. “They’re just busier. They have more to do and less time to do it.”
By ISAAC CONSTANS