On May 5, U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Ray LaHood announced that Wisconsin had become the 25th state in the U.S. to ban texting while driving, calling distracted driving "an epidemic" responsible for killing and injuring thousands of people every year. That statistic is a very unfortunate reality for the family of Anita Zaffke, the 56-year-old woman killed on May 2, 2009, when she was rear-ended on her motorcycle by Lora Hunt, who admitted to painting her fingernails while driving prior to hitting Zaffke near Lake Zurich, Illinois. LaHood's announcement of Wisconsin's driver texting ban came just one day before a Lake County jury found Hunt guilty of reckless homicide on May 6.
Both the verdict and Wisconsin's texting ban come at a time when the emerging problem of distracted driving is finally under the spotlight. In April, Oprah Winfrey, along with Chevrolet, unveiled a highly publicized campaign aimed at educating the public about the many consequences of distracted driving. Focusing on what she terms "America's New Deadly Obsession," Winfrey created a pledge against texting while driving and encouraged her many viewers to take the pledge and pass it along to friends co-workers. As of May 7, over 314,000 people had done so. In December 2009, President Obama issued an Executive Order prohibiting over 4 million federal employees from texting while driving either job-related or private vehicles. Additionally, the DOT created Distraction.gov, a multi-faceted website featuring public service announcements, resources and statistics related to the consequences of distracted driving. The numbers are mind-blowing:
- In 2008, there were a total of 34,017 fatal automobile crashes in which 37,261 individuals were killed nationwide; 5,870 people were killed in crashes involving driver distraction, marking 16% of the total fatalities.
- The proportion of drivers reportedly distracted at the time of the fatal crashes has increased from 8 percent in 2004 to 11 percent in 2008.
- The under-20 age group had the highest proportion of distracted drivers involved in fatal crashes (16%). The age group with the next greatest proportion of distracted drivers was the 20- to-29-year-old age group (12%).
- Motorcyclists and drivers of light trucks had the greatest percentage of total drivers reported as distracted at the time of the fatal crashes (12%).
- An estimated 21 percent of 1,630,000 injury crashes were reported to have involved distracted driving.
Distraction.gov also offers interesting research into why driving while distracted by phones and other gadgets increases the risks of crashes and fatalities, including:
- Driving while using a cell phone reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent. (Source: Carnegie Mellon)
- Drivers who use hand-held devices are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. (Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)
- Using a cell phone use while driving, whether it's hand-held or hands-free, delays a driver's reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent. (Source: University of Utah)
While the loss of Zaffke has devastated her family, her son Gregory Zaffke told the Chicago Tribune after Hunt was found guilty that his family does not want to celebrate the verdict, but rather use it as an opportunity to educate people on the dangers of distracted driving. He has started an activist group called the Black Nail Brigade, wherein members paint the fingernails of one hand black in memory of his mother, and also as a way to start a conversation about how crucial it is to maintain focus and awareness when behind the wheel.
Wisconsin's texting ban goes into effect on December 1, 2010, marking the halfway point to a uniform, nationwide ban on texting while driving.
It is encouraging to see so much attention is finally being paid to this subject. With the ever-increasing amount of portable technology and an approaching generation of new drivers who've not known a life without a cell phone, it is important to hammer home the importance of staying focused on the road and fellow motorists, not a text message or an iPod. Surely Ms. Hunt never meant to kill or even hurt Anita Zaffke, but she did, and all it took was one second of bad judgment to do so. Now, all because one person decided to look away from the road for only seconds, two families are forever changed. Let's hope that this new spotlight on the harsh consequences of distracted driving reminds all of us to keep our eyes on the road and our hands on the wheel.