A smartphone in hand is like gasoline on a fire when it comes to driving safety. Things can blaze out of control shockingly fast.

Throw in speeding or aggressive driving, sleepiness or recklessness in its many forms, or general lack of attention, and you have some of the key factors that make the 100 days between Memorial Day and Labor Day a time when drivers make the roads an especially scary place to be if everyone isn’t paying close attention to their actions and those of others.

Law enforcement officials in nearly every state are using the few days leading to the Memorial Day weekend to warn drivers to be smart and keep the roads safe this summer. This weekend, they’ll be out in force.

No one knows the danger of even a momentary driving lapse better than Chelsie Laycock, a mother who was in visible pain as she addressed reporters, driving safety advocates and law enforcement officials Wednesday morning as Utah kicked off its safe driving campaign. She had come to speak for her son, who could not tell his own story because he’s in prison. She spoke sadly of the two women he killed by driving recklessly and two others who suffered serious injuries in the crash. Behind her were photographs of the crumpled wreckage, the crash’s aftermath blown up to poster size.

Her son, Cody Laycock, was 23 years old in November 2021, when he decided to show his cousin how well his Audi TTRS handled. They’d just come from a family member’s baby shower — a happy day — when he decided to take a “full throttle turn” onto Main and State Street in American Fork. It was a dangerous decision, as he later admitted.


Fatal distraction

Utah Highway Patrol Col. Michael Rapich emphasizes that “crashes are not accidents. They are the consequence of bad choices.”

He said a single decision can have enduring consequences, whether it’s driving drowsy, being distracted or simply opting not to buckle up.

While crash scene experts and law enforcement have tools to measure speed — more than 2,000 drivers were ticketed for going more than 100 mph in Utah in the last year, Rapich said — distracted driving is harder to count. People don’t usually admit they were on the phone or tweezing their brows. Sometimes, an eyewitness can fill in that detail, but it’s generally assumed any count of distracted driving is way under reality.

UDOT Safety Outreach administrator Kristen Hoschouer told Deseret News the list of things that officers have seen distracted drivers do is seemingly endless, from eating or texting or fiddling with technology, to putting on makeup or shaving while they drive. How distracted driving stands up to aggression and speed in terms of killing and maiming people isn’t really known for sure, though aggression and speed are highest in Utah’s count.

In this Dec. 14, 2011, file photo, a driver uses an iPhone while driving in Los Angeles. | Damian Dovarganes

It all has potential to cause serious property damage, bodily injury and even death.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there are three kinds of driving distractions. They boil down to things that take your eyes off the road, your hands off the steering wheel or your mind off the fact that you are driving. Sometimes it’s a combination, a “triple whammy,” as distracted driving expert David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah, puts it.

Understanding Driver Distraction,” a National Safety Council report, says that at any given moment, nearly 1 in 10 drivers is using a cellphone — often to text or email someone.

The report says bluntly that “banning use of cell phones and interactive in-vehicle technology while driving can save lives.”

The report explains we evolved our way into the cars-and-technology crisis. “Car phones evolved into cell phones, then into smartphones with internet connectivity. Cell coverage became increasingly seamless and fast. This connectivity enabled us to be in constant real-time communication with work, family, friends and social media followers. It is only natural to think that hours spent driving, once thought of as wasted time, could now be made ‘productive’ with use of the phone.”

We think we’re multitaskers. We’re actually switch-taskers.

“The human brain is not capable of multitasking, of doing two things at once. Instead, the brain is constantly attention-switching between two tasks, never giving full focus to either one,” per the distracted driver report.

Switching between tasks doesn’t matter when you’re watching TV and doing your nails. Driving demands full focus.

Paying for your distraction

Drivers know when they’re speeding or being aggressive. It’s often a conscious choice. Distraction can be more subtle. People think they’re doing just fine — until something happens that says they’re clearly not.

Strayer said the people most apt to pay for a driver’s distraction are the “vulnerable road users”: the bicyclists and pedestrians and people on motorcycles. In the last decade, serious injury and death in those groups have increased greatly. “When you’re distracted, you’re usually killing someone else. Not always, of course. But often,” he said.

The council’s report says eight people die every day in the U.S. in distraction-related crashes. Others offer slightly varied estimates, but they’re all in the thousands in terms of deaths and hundreds of thousands for injuries and property damage. Council data said that in 2018, 2,841 people died in distracted-driving crashes, which are all preventable. An estimated 275,000 were injured and there were also 659,000 crashes with property damage only.

The CDC says that nine people die every day because of distracted driving — nearly 3,300 lives lost. Close to 425,000 people are injured.

That the numbers are low compared to reality is clear, the council asserts. More than half of the states didn’t even have a field on forms to report texting or hands-free cellphone use, and just three states record infotainment and voice-based systems in police reports. So when those cause crashes, they’re not directly blamed.

Still, the average driver does know that technology and driving are risky. In the council’s survey, 96% said texting or emailing while driving is dangerous. Nearly 9 in 10 said they support laws banning reading or typing or sending texts and emails while driving. A like number think talking on cellphones is a serious safety threat. Nearly three-fourths support banning handheld phone use while driving.

Even so, 60% say they talk on a hands-free cellphone while driving. Nearly half talk on a handheld cellphone while driving. And nearly 45% admit they read a text or email while driving and more than a third said they’ve sent or typed a text or email while driving.

“Drivers think cell phone use is distracting … for other people,” the report maintains.

A fatal crash photo is pictured at a press conference about the 100 Deadliest Days on Utah roads at Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. The 100 Deadliest Days, when most fatal accidents typically occur, is from Memorial Day until Labor Day. | Submitted

Comparing hazards

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls texting “the most alarming distraction.” It takes 5 seconds to send or read a text and with your eyes off the road for that long, at 55 mph, the vehicle will cover the length of a football field.

No one would drive that far with eyes closed — but the person who’s texting just did the equivalent of exactly that.

People have a hard time resisting the temptation to check what’s happening on their phone or to actively use it, Strayer said. Taking your eyes off the road substantially increases the risk of crashing. “You’re about six times more likely to be involved in a crash if you’re texting than if you weren’t. It’s an example of a behavior that’s quite hazardous.”

Cars are replete with temptations to be distracted, especially with cool tech like navigation systems and alerts. You can also be distracted by conversations with a passenger or someone on the phone. Taking your hands off the wheels to manipulate your cellphone or the touchscreen, your eyes off the road and concentration elsewhere, and people “just lose awareness of the driving context,” resulting in more crashes and, often, more deaths.

Strayer outlined research he has done with AAA measuring distraction when hands are on the steering wheel and eyes can be on the road. Listening to the radio creates a tiny bump in distraction, but not a really worrisome one. Listening to a book on tape elevates it a bit more. Talking to passengers or on the phone increases the crash risk; you’re about four times more likely to wreck when you talk on the cellphone.

Talking to a passenger would have about the same effect, except that the passenger you’re chatting with usually acts as a second set of eyes and can compensate for the driver’s distraction, pointing out potential danger. The distraction for the driver is the same whether having an in-person or phone conversation, but the crash risk is not.

Is it time to get serious about road safety?
Is the right of way the right to die? What you think you know about crossing the street might kill you

Talking to Siri or other tech voice assistants “is substantial work and harder to do than even talking to humans,” Strayer adds. To get the answers you want from technology, you have to word things right and that takes a distracting amount of concentration if you’re trying to do it while you drive. Human conversations “tend to be a little more on the fly,” per Stayer.

Programming the navigation system while driving takes a dangerously long period of time, the distraction “well over 40 seconds, I think was the average. That’s well above any kind of acceptable limit,” he notes.

If you’re using a navigation system, program it before you enter traffic. Such a system is certainly better than messing around with a paper map for focus. And use voice direction rather than the visual picture to be safe. That way, eyes stay on the road, hands on the wheel, mind on the pathway.

It came with the car

Strayer has talked to people who assume a car wouldn’t have all that cool tech if it wasn’t safe. He warns that car companies likely haven’t tested them for safety and tech tools may even be poorly designed.

Companies sell lots of things that aren’t safe. It’s up to the user to use them safely.

Reaction time is 20% to 30% slower when someone is distracted. That includes taking evasive action.

Strayer did note that for a while, improvements like collision warnings and lane departure warnings helped compensate for some of the distraction factors. They no longer are able “to compensate for all the distractions on the road.” The driver’s job is to focus.

Who’s distracted?

The most distracted drivers were ages 15 to 34 and drivers 75 and older, according to the council and other experts.

Who’s distracted the most by their phones? According to an analysis of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data by the Florida personal injury law firm Anidjar & Levine, between 2018 and 2022, in Montana more than a quarter of distracted drivers involved in fatal crashes were distracted by their cellphone. In North Dakota, that was true of 22.5% of drivers, while Wyoming came in third with 21.8% of fatalities caused by distracted drivers using a cellphone.

Utah came in at No. 8, with 17% of distractions being the phone. The state had 135 fatalities chalked up to distracted driving in that five-year period, 23 of them involving cellphone distraction.

Said a spokesperson for the firm, in a written statement, “This data is an important insight into road safety and the danger of being distracted while driving. Cell phones are a dangerous distraction for drivers that can lead to fatal crashes. Even just simply changing a song or readjusting your map on your mobile puts you and others on the road at risk.”

Chelsie Laycock hugs her daughter Presley Laycock after Chelsie spoke about her son Cody Laycock, who killed two people while driving recklessly, during a press conference about the 100 Deadliest Days at Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. The 100 Deadliest Days, when most fatal vehicle accidents typically occur in Utah, is from Memorial Day until Labor Day. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

A plea for caution

Her son had always been a “very good boy,” said Laycock — “kind, loving, very respectful.” He was good at his job and generous with its financial rewards. She never once expected she’d be visiting him in prison.

That day, in an instant, his decision to be reckless changed all the lives in those two cars — and had ripples that were actually a tidal wave that impacted many futures in extended families of the victims, too. His bad choice that day will never go away for any of them. Cody Laycock was convicted and given three zero to 5-year sentences, his mom said.

Chelsie Laycock exhorted people to please drive carefully, to obey the law, to be safe.

Rapich echoed that. Be safe this weekend, he said. But also be aware that on Utah roads, there will be 4,000 officers working extra shifts to help people get where they’re going and “looking for people making bad choices.”

That increased enforcement will be true nationwide.