PHOTO: Driver on cell phone

EVEN though we’re aware of the dangers of distracted driving, we still do it.

Increasingly, drivers are posting on social media, scrolling through Spotify playlists, live streaming video, and binge-watching television shows. These activities put motorists, their passengers, pedestrians, and cyclists in real danger.

We need better driver behavior and stronger laws to combat distracted driving and protect everyone on the road.

Virginia policymakers have taken some recent positive steps to make our roads safer. Texting while driving is a primary offense, meaning law enforcement can pull drivers over and issue a ticket if you are composing, reading, or sending text messages or emails.

And effective last July, using a handheld phone in work zones is prohibited.

However, more needs to be done to make Virginia roads safer. Expanding the law to include a statewide handheld ban could significantly reduce traffic fatalities.

Motor vehicle deaths across the country reached at least 40,000 for three straight years and 4.5 million people were seriously injured in motor vehicle crashes, according to a 2018 report by the National Safety Council.

Distracted driving and the ubiquitous use of smartphones behind the wheel are widely believed to be one of the leading causes for crashes and fatalities nationwide. In fact, taking your eyes off the road for just two seconds to send or read a text can double your risk of a crash.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 9 percent of fatal crashes were distracted driver related, and 3,166 people were killed by distracted driving in 2017. But these numbers do not tell the whole story.

It is difficult to detect distraction following a crash, which makes distracted driving one of the most under-reported traffic safety issues. Teen driver research from the AAA Foundation used vehicle dash-cam videos to determine that distraction was a factor in 58 percent of teen crashes, 44 percent more than federal estimates.

Distracted driving is a growing epidemic. Education and enforcement of the current laws are essential, but more needs to be done to make Virginia roads safer. To do that, Virginia lawmakers need to expand and strengthen the commonwealth’s distracted driving law.

A hands-free law would expand the current law and make it illegal statewide for a driver to hold a handheld communications device while operating a moving motor vehicle. This legislation would strengthen Virginia’s law, clear up any ambiguity, and give law enforcement the tools they need to make Virginia’s roads safer.

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia now ban the use of handheld devices while driving. According to a study conducted by the Georgia Legislature, 12 out of 15 states saw an average 16 percent decrease in traffic fatalities within two years of passing a handheld ban.

The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles reports that over 800 people died on Virginia roads in 2018, and 15 percent of all fatal crashes were distraction related.

According to Zendrive, an analytics company, nationally drivers were 10 percent more distracted in 2018 than in 2017. Virginia ranks in the top half of the list for drivers using handheld devices.

Virginia drivers observed in a roadside survey conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in 2018 found that 57 percent were more likely to be manipulating a cellphone while driving than drivers in a 2014 survey.

The time is now. Distracted drivers pose a very real risk to themselves, their passengers, pedestrians, cyclists, and everyone else on the road. Expanding the current law is critical to address the distraction-related motor vehicle fatalities in Virginia.

Nancy Egan is assistant vice president and state government relations counsel for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association (APCIA).

Nancy Egan is assistant vice president and state government relations counsel for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association (APCIA).

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