Driving while distracted can be deadly

OKEECHOBEE — Distracted driving is the third leading cause of motor vehicle related deaths and like the top two causes, is easily avoidable. The top cause is speeding, followed closely by drunk driving. The Department of Motor Vehicles reports that in 2017 in the state of Florida alone, distracted driving caused 49,288 crashes with 214 of those resulting in death.

According to the US Department of Transportation, there were 3,450 distraction related fatalities in 2016 in the U.S., and AAA states that distracted driving accounts for fifty-eight percent of all teen driving accidents.

According to data from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, some Florida counties are at higher risk from accidents due to distracted driving than others. The counties with the highest rate of distracted driving crashes per 1,000 vehicles were first, Wakulla; second, Walton; third, Orange; and tied for fourth, Okaloosa and Duval. Okeechobee County fared well, ranking 57th out of 67 counties. Glades County has a slightly higher rate of distracted driver crashes, ranking number 51 in the state, Highlands County was number 47; Palm Beach County, number 37; and Hendry County, number 35. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.

Sgt. Michael Hazellief, Training and Public Relations Supervisor for the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO), explains that these statistics may not be completely accurate because in cases where the driver is deceased, and there are no passengers, they would not necessarily investigate the phone records to see if the driver was using the phone. This is usually only done if there were other fatalities involved.

Sgt. Hazellief teaches classes on distracted driving. He believes that driving is an awesome responsibility and it is when we lose that sense of awe that we begin to take driving for granted and we begin to let our minds wander. He shared that he is in the process of teaching his daughter to drive and although teaching new drivers can be nerve-racking at times, it is also nice to see how careful they are, how responsibly they take their time behind the wheel. He explained that it is when we become complacent with mundane activities that we become distracted.

The United States Department of Transportation defines distracted driving as “any activity that diverts attention from driving, including talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking to people in your vehicle, fiddling with the stereo, entertainment or navigation system — anything that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving.”

Although all of these things cause distractions, the National Safety Council says the top distraction is cell phones, with approximately 481,000 drivers using cell phones while driving each day. Everywhere you look, people are on their cell phones from the minute they get up in the morning until they go to bed at night. Almost everyone has good intentions. No one sets out in his car thinking, “it’s a great day for an accident today,” but when that text alert comes through while he is driving, he just can’t resist a little peek. Maybe he thinks about his son who is driving up to college by himself and might have broken down. Maybe he thinks his boss is texting or his wife is sick, and he will just take a quick look. He is a careful driver.

He can multi-task. Right?

Possibly you are thinking that you would never text and drive, ever, for any reason, and that’s great, but that is only part of the problem. The National Safety Council has determined that there is NO safe way to use a cell phone and drive a motor vehicle at the same time. Even the hands-free options were created for convenience, not for safety. The human brain cannot focus on two things at the same time, but rather, it shifts back and forth between the two giving neither task its full attention. The council used the example of watching television while reading a book. You may have a general idea of what is going on in the book and on the television, but neither had your full attention.

No matter how strong the urge is to read that text or answer that call, please don’t do it.

Think of the person on the other end of the line. How is he or she going to feel if that text or call results in your death? How will you feel if it results in someone else’s death? Don’t think it can happen to you? Neither did the 49,288 Floridians who had distracted driving accidents last year, and neither did the 214 who died.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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