Distracted drivers are now the single greatest threat to public safety on Utah roads. Drug- and alcohol-related accidents from chemically impaired drivers are already well-documented, but is text messaging or dialing a phone number while driving any less deadly?
It only takes a millisecond of being distracted to injure ourselves and/or other innocent people. How many distracted drivers have run through red lights, swerved into our lane or otherwise endangered others? It's not difficult to spot a driver who is texting or trying to dial their next cellphone call. They are looking down, driving slower than the traffic, swerving in and out of lanes, looking up only occasionally. Especially alarming are drivers who speed through residential areas while focused on their phones.
Why do drivers continue to do it? Are the Utah laws that prohibit dialing and texting on hand-held phones while driving not enough? Why aren't the laws better enforced?
Why should we wait for fatalities to multiply when we can easily predict the outcome of distracted driving and prevent these tragedies altogether?
Australia and other foreign countries offer a successful incentive for drivers to keep the speed limit. They consistently enforce and penalize speeding violations with outlandish penalties. The Utah fine for 21-25 mph over the limit is $270, while Australia collects $568 for the same violation. A Utah speeding violation of 26-30 mph over the speed limit is $320, while Australia's is $1,137 plus a six-month suspension. Drivers choose to comply rather than pay this exorbitant penalty.
Some countries levy fines based on income. Jussi Salonoja, a 27-year-old heir to a northern European meatpacking empire, earned $11.5 million in 2002, which after a complex calculation by the courts resulted in the world-record fine of about $200,000. And all that for driving 50 mph in a 25 mph zone. A Finnish business executive also had a $165,000 fine reduced to a mere $9,000 after he restated his earnings to the courts. Higher penalties result in improved speed limit compliance.
Similar penalties for distracted drivers should be implemented in Utah to prevent unnecessary accidents and fatalities. Dialing and texting are obviously dangerous, but seemingly innocent behaviors such as eating while driving can also be deadly.
In 2012, a distracted driver caused an accident that totaled my recently paid off car, resulting in irreversible nerve damage to my right arm and my subsequent premature retirement. Following my first accident in 2012, I did not immediately notice the damage caused by the accident. Unfortunately, I did not hire an attorney to cover any future disability. I actually thought I was fine. Subsequent surgeries have been performed, but I'll never regain my fine motor skills to practice dentistry. The financial consequences to my retirement were devastating!
Recently I was rear-ended by another distracted driver. As the traffic light turned green, he said, " I assumed all cars were moving." That's when he reached for a cellphone that had fallen on the floor of the passenger side of the car.
Our law enforcement officers need to enforce the law against texting while driving and the Legislature should levy more appropriate penalties. Until then, texting while driving will be alive and well in Utah.
Unfortunately, Utah seems to place a stop light in an intersection only after a fatality has occurred. Preventing texting related fatalities is one public safety problem that can be solved now.
How tragic it would be to look up from reading a text while driving to realize someone's mother, father, child, or grandchild's life was taken because you were reading or sending that unimportant text.
Stephen Carter is a retired dentist who was disabled from a car accident caused by a distracted driver.