Last week, we reported again on the sad story of “The Saga of Young Joe,” a vibrant 23-year-old who lost his life in an alcohol related single car accident in his ’69 Camaro Z28. This week, we follow up with how Joe also became a statistic in the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) new group of fatalities and crashes directly related to cell phone and texting use behind the wheel.

Because Joe was on his phone when he “missed” making that sharp curve at high speed, he’ll add to the new statistic that involves vehicle deaths related to distracted drivers (cell phone, texting, etc.). This new statistic centering on cell phone use and texting while driving causes somewhere near 20-percent of all accidents reported, not just the fatal ones.

The NHTSA’s “distraction-affected crashes” data is very troubling. The organization lists “distracted driving” as any driver the texts, uses a cell or smart phone, eats and drinks, talks to passengers, grooms oneself, reads, uses a navigation system, watches a video or adjusts a car stereo system, CD or MP3.

However, NHTSA stresses that sending and receiving text messages requires visual, manual, and cognitive attention, and is by far the most alarming distraction drivers engage in on a regular basis.

Further, NHTSA informs us that an estimated 71 percent of teens and young people say they have composed/sent SMS messages while driving and 78 percent of teens and young adults say they have read an SMS message while driving. These statistics are extremely troubling. Today, every driver on the road has probably seen people texting and weaving on the road while driving. It is also important to realize that texting is here to stay as people communicate via texting in this modern era we live in. Currently, Distraction.gov estimates that every month close to 169.4 billion text messages are sent in the US, Guam and Puerto Rico and The Territories. This figure is expected to rise.

The year prior (NHTSA estimates), more than 421,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver, which is a nine-percent increase from the estimated 387,000 people injured the prior year (2014). As sobering as these numbers are, expect the numbers to go higher when the latest numbers are released as more and more young drivers join the driver database and are addicted to their phones.

NHTSA said that currently, 46 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban text messaging for all drivers. All but five have primary enforcement. Of the four states without an all driver texting ban, two prohibit text messaging by novice drivers and one restricts school bus drivers from texting.

Additionally, NHTSA information indicates that driver distraction continues to be a significant problem given the difficulty of proof and a driver’s reluctance to admit texting/phone distractions, lack of witnesses, or death of the driver. NHTSA believes the actual number of distracted crashes could be much higher than the estimated 420,000-plus injured in distraction-affected crashes the last few years.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is also leading the effort to stop texting and cell phone use behind the wheel. Since 2009, several national distracted driving summits have been held resulting in banning texting and cell phone use for commercial drivers and encouraging states to adopt even tougher laws.

According to the NHTSA, the age group that produces the highest number of distracted drivers is the under-20 age group, where 16 percent of all drivers younger than 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported to have been distracted while driving. Of those drivers involved in fatal crashes who were reportedly distracted, the 30- to 39-year-olds had the highest proportion of cell phone involvement.
Here are more disturbing facts about distracting driving:

1. Five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting. When traveling at 55mph, that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field blindfolded. (VTTI)

2. Ten percent of all drivers 15 to 19 years old involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crashes. This age group has the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted at the time of the crashes. (NHTSA)

3. At any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, a number that has held steady since 2010. Experts feel this number will rise. (NOPUS)

4. More than half (53%) of all adult cell phone owners have been on the giving or receiving end of a distracted walking encounter. (PEW Research)

5. Drivers in their 20s make up 28 percent of the distracted drivers in fatal crashes. Experts feel this number will rise as more teens receive their driver license. (NHTSA) (See www.distraction.gov for more stats by these organizations).

In summary, texting while driving has become just as serious a problem as driving while intoxicated is. More and more campaigns, starting in grade school, should be implemented to help curb this obsession with the cell phone and texting. Educators are urged to contact the NHTSA as campaigns and videos are available to address the problem before students receive their driver permits.

Further, this writer again calls on all auto manufacturers to eliminate options that can take a driver’s eyes off the road, like touch screen video/stereo displays and cumbersome to operate climate and navigation systems.
Drive safely and have a very happy New Year. Thanks to the NHTSA and Distraction.gov for important statistics and estimates for this yearly holiday season column.

— Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and other Gatehouse Media publications. He welcomes reader input on collector cars, old-time motorsports and auto nostalgia at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, Pa. 18840 or email at greg@gregzyla.com