South Carolina DPS says distracted driver deaths are up

| Tuesday, September 17, 2002

The number of deaths blamed on inattention has climbed 72 percent in recent years, the South Carolina Department of Public Safety recently reported. Cell phone usage, fiddling with CD players and eating while driving number among top distractions.

In a report comparing 1996 to 2000, the latest year for which statistics are available, highway deaths blamed on driver inattention totaled 157 in 2000, up from 91 in 1996.

In 2000, 15 percent of the 1,063 fatalities on state roads were blamed on inattentive driving, compared with about 10 percent of the 930 fatalities in 1996.

The study quoted Jane Stutts, manager of epidemiological studies at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, who is studying driver inattention. "Different age groups appear to be distracted by different things," Stutts said. She found nearly half of the drivers who weren't paying attention said they were distracted by something outside the car like a wreck or disabled vehicle.

Other distractions included adjusting the radio, talking to passengers, using a cell phone and eating, Stutts added. Drivers 19 and younger were likely to be distracted by tuning the radio or changing CDs. Young adults between 20 and 29 seemed more distracted by other passengers, particularly small children. Drivers over 65 were found to be more distracted by objects or events happening outside the car.

The DPS also gathered information from University of South Carolina professor Gary Allan, an expert on cognitive psychology. He said it's difficult for most people to drive and talk on a cell phone at the same time. "When you're engaged in some form of communication, you probably have to think about the content that's coming in," Allan said. "Drivers get into trouble when something unexpected happens in front of them."

Most people don't have enough experience at driving and talking on a phone at the same time to be safe, Allan said. "Driving a car requires considerable concentration to avoid a crash."

Only New York has a ban against using cell phones when the vehicle is moving. New Jersey plans to introduce anti-cell phone legislation in January. A number of bills regulating cell phone use were introduced last session in the United States, including two in South Carolina, but died without being voted on.

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