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Caution: distractions ahead

Keep your eyes on the road.

It’s a simple, common sense enough practice when driving a motor vehicle.

Yet, as a driver education program at Cibola High School illustrates, people — not just texting teens — are often sidetracked by an array of distractions.

When Cibola activities director Ben Shultz teaches classes on defensive driving, he has students stand in a safe spot observing traffic through the busy intersection of Ellison and Coors Bypass NW, just outside the westside school.

Students are told to list 20 driving distractions that they see. They typically react by “rolling their eyes and complaining it will take hours,” says Shultz. “It actually takes maybe 20 minutes. That’s how common the distractions are.”

The observations generally take place between 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., as evening rush hour gets under way. “In all fairness to our teenagers, the distractions involved drivers of all ages, men and women,” Shultz says.

What Shultz’ students have discovered is what experts are saying about distracted driving — the problem is not the technology. It’s the distracted mind.

Cellphone chatter or text messaging might top the list, but the students also saw drivers jammin’ while wearing headphones, sprucing up their hair and juggling all manner of objects from cigarettes to burgers to coffee. They saw small dogs on drivers’ laps and young children in the front passenger seat. Some drivers twisted around to speak with rear seat passengers and some rubber-necked to gawk at the student observers.

That’s a glimpse at the real picture on the road, and that may be why one teen safe driving advocate says hands-free technology and other quick fixes miss the point. “The distraction is not in the device, it’s in the brain,” says Thom Turbett, chairman and a founding member of SafeTeen New Mexico.

Ben Shultz, defensive driving instructor at Cibola High School, says students are “smart beyond their years, in part because of the technology, but it’s the technology that helps create some of the distractions.” (COURTESY PHOTO)

Gaining success

Statistically, the campaign to raise awareness about distracted driving seems to be working. According to Franklin Garcia, chief of the New Mexico Traffic Safety Bureau, 2,446 vehicle accidents in New Mexico in 2011 resulted in serious injury or death because of driver inattention. That number is down significantly since 2007, when the number was 3,368.

In summer 2011, the New Mexico Department of Transportation launched an anti-texting while driving campaign and a year later expanded it to the broader issue of distracted driving.

“The message originally was don’t text while driving,” says Melissa Dosher, public information officer for the New Mexico Department of Transportation. “Since then, it evolved into an anti-distracted driving message, which includes texting of course. We expanded the message because advances in technology, including tablets and other devices, have also become temptations for drivers.”

The state DOT, she says, is gearing up for a primarily TV-based anti-DWI campaign timed for Super Bowl, as well as developing a media plan for the rest of the year to encourage safe driving.

Focusing on teens

Anti-distracted driving efforts have become a focus in schools, youth programs and community outreach campaigns because younger people are quick to adopt and use new technologies.

“One of the things we teach the kids, and it’s a bitter pill to swallow, is that the biggest reason for premature death among teens is vehicle-related accidents,” Shultz says. “I know that teens are getting the message. They are smart beyond their years in part because of the technology, but it’s the technology that helps create some of the distractions.”

Turbett says cellphone and text blocking technologies are a step in the right direction because they remove the cellphone from the driving equation and force drivers to focus on the task at hand.

In addition to high school, private driving schools are also reinforcing the dangers of distracted driving. David McGinnis, owner and president of McGinnis School of Driving, based in Albuquerque with 17 schools in 12 states, says student drivers used to get the message with graphic videos of accident scenes and re-enactments of crashes, which are still part of the curriculum.

The “shock and awe” doesn’t seem to bother young people as much as it used to. “They see so much carnage on TV and in movies and in video games that they’re numb to it. The only thing you can do is explain to them that there are things in life you just don’t do, like drinking and driving and texting and driving — and then hope common sense prevails.”

On watch

Law enforcement, of course, plays an important role in reminding people to avoid distractions.

The Albuquerque Police Department has seen a 58 percent increase in the number of cellphone citations issued by Traffic Division officers over the previous year, says division commander Eric Garcia. “This includes talking on a cellphone without a hands-free device and texting.”

Albuquerque has an ordinance requiring a hands-free device for cellphone calls from a vehicle. It also prohibits text messaging from any public roadway while driving, says Garcia.

Other metropolitan areas in New Mexico have enacted ordinances to restrict distracted driving in general and talking on a cellphone or texting while driving in particular, says Dosher. Among them are Rio Rancho, Santa Fe, Farmington, Las Cruces, Gallup, Taos, Española and Silver City.

While there is no statewide ban on cellphone usage, two bills have recently been introduced by state legislators to ban texting while driving. In addition, the NMDOT is working on a distracted driving bill that prohibits texting for all drivers and prohibits cellphone use for all drivers under age 18, Dosher says.

Currently, New Mexico State Police officers cite distracted motorists for careless driving, says NMSP Lt. Robert McDonald.

Both APD and NMSP have active community outreach programs to combat distracted driving, which is a problem nationwide.

A real danger

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each day in the United States 15 people are killed and 1,200 injured in vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver. The CDC could not determine how many of those distractions were a result of cellphone usage.

The National Safety Council, however, conservatively estimates that about 24 percent of all crashes each year involve cellphone use, and says it may be as high as 70 percent.

Texting on a cellphone is particularly dangerous, increasing the risk of an accident by as much as 23 times, the NSC says.

“Arriving safely is job No. 1,” says SafeTeen’s Turbett. “There is no phone call, text message or fast food meal on the go important enough that it can’t wait. Drivers, regardless of age and experience behind the wheel, should be doing only one thing when they’re on road, and that’s focus on driving. Nothing else.”