Wednesday April 24, 2013

BENNINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood calls it an "epidemic on America’s roadways."

In 2011, the Vermont Agency of Transportation tallied 525 related crashes, the majority resulting in property damage with about 20 percent causing injury.

But according to a survey last year by the state Department of Public Safety, more than half of Vermonters are driving distracted -- and that percentage is growing.

April is National Distracted Driver Awareness Month, and safety officials are stressing the importance of drivers keeping their eyes on the road.

"Drivers really need to be aware of the impact of their attitude on their behavior," according to Norman James, manager of Project RoadSafe at the Vermont Department of Labor.

Nationwide in 2010, 3,092 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver.

Although the number of distracted- and technology-related crashes recorded in Vermont in 2011 was lower than in 2010 (525 versus 465), the number of motorists using electronic communications while driving is on the rise.

While texting behind the wheel is currently banned in Vermont -- and subject to a $100 to $250 fine -- cellphone use is only restricted for drivers under 18.

Bills in the state Legislature propose the passage of a ban on electronic distractions in construction zones and a stiffening of current texting penalties. (Under the law, texting is defined as composing or sending text messages, instant messages, and emails.)

Reps. Bill Botzow, D-Pownal/Woodford, and Timothy R. Corcoran II, D-Bennington, are co-sponsors of a current bill, H. 161, prohibiting cellphone use in work zones.

Legal or not, transportation officials say motorists should remain distraction-free.

In the April newsletter for Project RoadSafe, an educational publication about workplace driver safety, James in an editorial says that while data shows the effects of distracted driving, it doesn’t give the rationale for the behavior.

"Hands off the wheel -- eyes off the road -- and mind off the task of driving: the perfect storm for a distracted driving crash," James said.

"The fact is, distracted driving, caused by drivers who decide, for whatever reason, not to pay attention to the task of driving, is a major cause of concern in highway safety," James said.

According to the Governor’s Highway Safety Program Survey prepared last September, nearly one-quarter of respondents said they used electronic communication devices while driving either "frequently" or "occasionally."

Over the past three years, the number who said they never used cellphones driving has declined: From 56 percent who never did in 2010, to 53.6 percent in 2011, to 48.6 percent in 2012.

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