Police aim to discourage distracted driving

    If you text, eat, apply lipstick or shave while behind the wheel, Fairfax County police are looking for you.

    This week, they kicked off a new distracted-driving campaign aimed at keeping drivers focused on driving.

    A recent study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that nearly 80 percent of all vehicle crashes and 65 percent of all near-crashes involved drivers using smart phones and engaged in other activities while driving.

    According to Capt. Susan Culin, commander of the Fairfax County Police Department Traffic Division, distracted driving is a serious problem.

    “We see it every day, everywhere. It’s become an epidemic on our roadways,” she said Friday during a demonstration of distracted-driving dangers at the FCPD driver training track in Chantilly.

    “People are increasingly using drive time to take care of other business. We are all guilty of it.”

    But not paying attention while driving can lead to devastating results, according to Erin Watts, injury prevention coordinator for Inova Fairfax Hospital’s Regional Trauma Center.

    “Distracted driving is a huge issue that leads to deaths, brain injuries, paralysis and other life-changing injuries,” she said. According to Watts, Inova Fairfax saw nearly 2,000 victims of severe vehicle accidents in 2009 and nearly 800 as of June 2010.

    On Aug. 8, eight U.S. Marines were in a van driving down Commerce Street near Springfield Mall when the driver went through a red light and hit an SUV, critically injuring one Marine.

    “Investigation revealed that the driver was involved on his cell phone,” Culin said.

    Fairfax County police spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said it was her understanding that he may have been checking his Facebook status.

    “The no-texting-while-driving law is very ineffective,” Culin said. “It is a small civil penalty ($25) and it is very difficult to prove that a driver was texting as opposed to just using his or her cell phone to make a call, which is legal in Virginia.”

    In addition, the law makes texting while driving a secondary offense, meaning that officers must recognize and pull a driver over for some other offense in order to cite them for texting.

    “It has only been used in Fairfax County 18 times in the last eight months,” Culin said.

    The new FCPD enforcement campaign instead utilizes an existing but little-known state law requiring all drivers to “pay full time and attention” to their driving. Based on the driver’s record and circumstances of the traffic stop, the law allows police to impose a fine of up to $250, and even charge a driver with reckless driving.

    “As opposed to the 18 texting violations, we have used this law 5,762 times in the last eight months,” Culin said. “We have traditionally only applied it to vehicle crashes, but we are now beginning to utilize it as a moving violation against distracted drivers.”

    The law is also a primary offense, so officers can pull a driver over based solely on seeing them involved in something other than driving, which is exactly what officers will be doing during their enforcement campaign, using SUVs and other taller vehicles to look down into the vehicles of suspected distracted drivers.

    Culin said officers will be posted in these vehicles at intersections and along roads where there is high volume and high numbers of crashes, such as the Route 28 corridor and the Tysons Corner area.

    Officers also might be positioned in ‘unorthodox’ locations where they’ll be able to best view careless behaviors that take a driver’s focus off of the roadway, Culin. said.

    “Distracted driving is more dangerous than drunk driving because it is more prevalent,” she said. “Studies have shown that when younger drivers are distracted because they are texting or emailing, they have a reaction time equivalent to that a 70-year-old driver, so I don’t even want to think what that means for anyone over 30.”

    gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com

    Published on 15/09/2010 18:37:48