By Ms. Lori Yerdon, U.S. Army Combat Readiness CenterMarch 6, 2017
FORT RUCKER, Ala. (March 6, 2017) - Distracted driving is typically synonymous with texting but according to U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center officials and the New York State Police, any time a driver takes their eyes off the road or hands off the wheel, there's an increased opportunity for a crash.
"There's three types of distracted driving," said Bernie Kennett, technical sergeant, Troop D Traffic, New York State Police. "Visual, when someone takes their eyes off the road; manual, when someone takes their hands off the wheel and cognitive, when someone takes their mind off the road."
For Kennett, a 28-year NYSP veteran, there's not much he has not seen drivers trying to do while operating a vehicle.
"Besides cellphone usage and texting, we're seeing issues with people eating and preparing food (while driving), applying cosmetics, changing clothes, petting their dog ... anything and everything," Kennett said. "I've stopped a person who was shaving on the way to church. There have been people who were brushing their teeth. The automobile is an extension of our daily routines, so everything that someone does in their lives you can expect them to do in an automobile."
According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration website, distracted driving is a dangerous epidemic. In 2014, 3,179 people died in distracted driving crashes.
Steve Kurtiak, a USACRC safety and occupational health specialist, off-duty driving, says all drivers are susceptible to distracted driving.
"There can be many distractions while driving a vehicle if you allow them to distract you," Kurtiak said. "Distractions may include navigation aids, entertainment programs (Bluetooth-type electronic devices) lighted roadside advertising and even passengers."
Kennett recalls a particular accident where distracted driving was a contributing factor in a pedestrian death.
"A driver hit a pedestrian that had already been hit by another car," he said. "The victim was laying in the road way and bystanders were trying to flag down the oncoming driver. The driver was eating cereal, on her way to work and didn't see the people trying to get her attention. She ended up driving over the pedestrian, who was already in critical condition. The victim succumbed to wounds inflicted by the driver who was eating cereal."
It's illegal to text and drive in New York and if you're caught doing it, the offense will cost you.
"You'll lose five points off your license and for a first offense you're fined $50 to $200, a second offense (within six months) $50 to $250 and a third and subsequent offense (within 18 months) costs $50 to $450," Kennett said. "It gets very expensive. For junior drivers, it could result in a license suspension for up to 120 days. If they have second conviction within six months, suspension could be up to one year."
Likewise, drivers are prohibited from texting and driving on all U.S. Army installations.
"Army Regulation 385-10, chapter 11-4e comprehensively covers the use of handheld devices while driving on installations," Kurtiak said. "While there are exceptions for emergency responders, everyone else is required to use hands-free devices."
Kennett says the NYSP does a lot of distracted driving educational outreach; however, offices have an uphill battle with enforcement of distracted driving because it's so commonplace.
"Even hands-free devices have their pitfalls as driver's attention isn't 100 percent on the road," he said. "I truly think that other than calling 911, there's probably no one out there that you need to talk to while driving. Something to think about is, 'Do I really need to talk to this person or text them while I'm driving?'.
"The only possible way to eliminate texting and driving is to make the devices inoperable when people are behind the wheel of a car," Kennett added. "The exception would be the ability to dial 911 in case of emergencies."
With Kennett's office location in proximity to Fort Drum, New York, he routinely speaks to Soldiers and encourages them to drive responsibly.
"It's sometimes difficult when we tell Soldiers to not text while driving, to not drink and drive, etc. because these men and women have often just come home from deployments that were far more dangerous," Kennett said. "While I acknowledge that what they've done while deployed is extremely dangerous, I try to help them understand that they're back home now and that driving irresponsibly is extremely dangerous as well."
Distracted driving accidents not only affect individuals and their loved ones, Kurtiak says they also influence unit readiness.
"The impact to unit readiness is painfully obvious because after the loss of a Soldier, your combat effectiveness has been reduced," Kurtiak said. "That position may take a great deal of time to be filled, causing other members in the unit to cover down on additional duties and responsibilities."
Kennett implores Soldiers, "You're back here and if you were deployed and survived over there, please don't come back home and let a distracted driver get you or be that distracted driver who runs over someone."
The NYSP even enlists the help of children in effort to curb distracted driving.
"A technique we use during our educational outreach events that we're optimistic about is talking to children," Kennett said. "When we teach children to buckle up or to not text and drive, they become pseudo police officers when they get in the car with mom and dad.
"I spoke to a gentleman and his son at an outreach event and the dad said that he never texts and drive. However, his 5 year-old son spoke up and said, 'But dad, you just did it in the car!' At that point, I told the young man he was now a junior trooper and that I needed his help to keep his parents from texting and driving."
Kurtiak has a few questions for anyone who's willing to drive distracted.
"Are you prepared to possibly face charges and a lengthy prison sentence for taking a life while driving distracted," he said. "Are you prepared to have a loved one lose their life because you were driving distracted?"