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The number of drivers and passengers killed on Georgia’s roads has increased in recent years, and several leaders in Cobb and the state say fueling the big increase is a small thing in almost every driver’s vehicle — their cellphone.

According to the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, 1,559 people lost their lives in vehicle crashes in 2016 — up nearly 9 percent from the previous year’s loss of 1,432 lives. But that 2015 statistic was itself a 22.4 percent from the 1,170 people killed on state roads in 2014.

“When you look at the numbers, we saw a big increase in the number of crashes that are symptomatic of distraction — lane departure, crossing the center line, striking an object. A lot of rear-end crashes,” said GOHS Director Harris Blackwood, who attributes the statewide increase to distracted driving.

A big contributor of those distractions are likely drivers’ use of cellphones, but calling such devices the smoking gun is not always easy to do, he says.

“We can put a needle in somebody, whether they’re dead or alive, after a crash and tell if alcohol was a factor. We can measure stick marks and tell how fast they were going. The whole business of distractive driving, you can say that something is symptomatic of distraction, but you can’t say with absolute certainty.”

Locally, GOHS data shows that deaths on Cobb’s roads have moved up in recent years. Numbers from the last five full years showed that while deaths on county roads were the highest in 2013 at 77 and dropped into the 50s in 2014 and 2015, the count moved upward to 66 last year.

HOW DISTRACTING IS PHONE USE?

Adriane Randolph is executive director of the BrainLab at Kennesaw State University’s Coles College of Business. Among her areas of study are human-computer interaction and neuro-information systems.

While any number of actions while driving could cause a distraction, Randolph says the technology of today’s phones bring with it the greater likelihood of using brain processes needed for safe driving. For instance, most people who use their phones to text now do so on non-tactile keyboards, or touchscreens, versus the actual buttons found on devices such as a Blackberry or the flip-phones of yesteryear. With that touchscreen, she says, most users have to look at the screen to type.

And while some may argue that drivers have always had the distraction of the car radio, Randolph said it doesn’t detract as much as the technological newcomer.

“Listening to music, that’s a different part of your brain being involved than monitoring the road and maybe bobbing your hands on the wheel (but still) being ready to respond, but if you are fidgeting with your gadget, you’re taking up motor processes with your hands being on the device instead of just on the wheel, your visual attention is diverted from monitoring what’s happening on the road,” she said. “It’s diverting resources in the brain that would normally be for safe driving.”

Since 2010, it’s been illegal in Georgia for drivers 18 and older to text while driving, while drivers under 18 have been banned from all cellphone use while driving. But legislators this year have pondered whether the state needs to take further action.

State Rep. Betty Price, R-Roswell, had introduced House Bill 163, which would prevent any driver in the state from holding a phone while making a call as they drive, though its language would seemingly still allow drivers to be on a hands-free device connected to the phone if it used no more than a single button to initiate or terminate phone calls.

Though Price said her bill had been passed favorably out of committee, it was not brought for a vote before “crossover day” Friday, when legislation has to pass at least one chamber by the day’s end to remain alive for the year. Price declined to discuss her bill with the MDJ.

Randolph said she believes the jury may still be out on how much talking on the phone distracts a driver, as even though a driver may be using a hand to hold their device, they can still have both eyes on the road.

“I would think the majority of (safe driving) is from visual attending — if you have a hearing challenge, you can still drive, but it’s not necessarily the other way around,” she said. “It would seem to be less dangerous to hold the phone up and talk into it. I’m not saying that’s not still a distraction, but less so in terms of the resources needed to drive safely.”

But Randolph said even voice communications could distract a driver, as a heated or emotional conversation could mentally take the driver away from full attention on the road.

COBB LAWMAKER SEEKS STUDY ON ISSUE

State Rep. John Carson, R-northeast Cobb, has proposed creating this year a House study committee aimed at finding solutions to the problem of distracted driving. Carson said House Resolution 282 stemmed from a House insurance committee meeting — he serves as the committee’s secretary — where members heard from an insurance data analyst who presented data showing that the rate of severe and fatal crashes were outpacing the rate of the growing driving population.

“The gentleman showed how despite the number of traffic accidents might be flat per capita, thereby growing but at the same rate as the number of drivers, the fatalities are nevertheless increasing as well as auto insurance premiums, which are vastly increasing in Georgia. The reason those two things are happening is previously, you wouldn’t be paying attention and you’d bump into somebody ... now, you have a high-speed crash at 45 mph because you’re posting something on Facebook or tweeting. (Phone usage) causing a longer distraction such that that fender-bender is now a major accident,” Carson said.

Carson said that since he introduced the resolution last month, he has made it a point to pull over if he needs to use the phone while on the road. “Ever since I dropped that legislation, I’ve got to hold up to it,” he said.

As for what to be done about the issue of distracted driving, he says it’s tough to say, preferring to study the issue and get input those familiar with the issue and the potential after effects of distracted driving, from trauma doctors to insurance adjusters and trial lawyers, as well as agencies such as the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

“I’m all about freedom, but we have to recognize that we share the same roads and infrastructure with all the other drivers,” he said. “It scares me as I commute from Cobb County to Atlanta the number of people I see, not just at traffic lights, but going down the road — Johnson Ferry Road, Sandy Plains, I-75, that are not just talking on their phones, but sending a text, sending a Facebook post, sending a tweet. It’s not worth it, the messaging people are doing.”

Acworth Police Chief Wayne Dennard has made his mind up on the impact of distracted driving caused by the phones.

Data compiled by his department has shown an increase in the number of crashes with injuries in recent years. In 2013, officers tallied 830 crashes, with 78 of them causing injuries. The total number of crashes and crashes with injuries increased each year since, with 2016 notching 1,060 crashes, 156 of them with injuries.

The department does not maintain numbers on fatal crashes, as those wrecks are handled by the Cobb County Selective Traffic Enforcement Program unit, while Acworth’s data also did not show the cause or suspected cause of the crash.

But Dennard said he believes his city’s increase can be attributed to drivers’ devices.

“You see people just on Cobb Parkway, you can pull up to a red light and see people texting on their phones. I live here, so I travel in our own community with my family, and I see this stuff all the time while in an unmarked car,” Dennard said. “I think it’s harder for us to catch in a marked car. That’s part of the problem — it’s hard to catch those folks, and it’s hard to prove it.”

And while Dennard says police departments and other entities have put out countless public service announcements on the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, he believes drivers distracted by the phones may be putting themselves and others at an even greater risk as they are not focusing on the road versus an impaired driver who may at least try to do so while dangerously attempting to get behind the wheel.

“I think DUIs are on the top of everyone’s list to pay attention to, to make sure they’re chasing other options for getting home when they’ve been driving. But I think we’re just on the cusp of helping people understand how dangerous all these electronics in the vehicles can be.”

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