“Those three seconds I took my eyes off the road changed my life forever.”
Courtney Brown, a 22-year-old from Phoenix, says she will never forget the day a text message could have cost her life and the life of her unborn daughter.
In November of 2012, at 32 weeks pregnant, Brown was on the highway shortly after rush hour. Her phone had just received a message, and she looked down only briefly to check it.
“When I looked up, all I saw was… brake lights, and I was traveling too fast to stop,” she said.
The impact of the crash destroyed Brown’s car and sent her into pre-term labor, which led to a three-day hospital stay fighting to carry her baby to term.
“I never thought I would be the person to get into an accident because of texting and driving,” Brown said.
She is not alone in thinking this way.
Every year, according to a 2011 study by the National Safety Council, an estimated 1.3 million car crashes in the United States involve the use of a cell phone — a dramatically higher statistic than the 2009 estimate of 636 thousand.
Just last week, the Arizona Senate voted against adding an amendment to an existing bill that would have led to a possible ban on texting while driving. According to reports from The Associated Press, Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, argued against the amendment, saying that reckless driving was already illegal under state law, thus making the need for additional legislation unnecessary.
Even without technically having laws against the practice, Gilbert Police Department Cmdr. Pete Smith has witnessed this growing trend first hand.
“Statistics about texting while driving clearly illustrate how pervasive and harmful the issue is,” he said, “but statistics don’t seem to change behavior much.”
Several months ago, Smith was on the scene of an accident involving a 17-year-old girl whose car had been damaged so severely that paramedics had to use the Jaws of Life tool to remove her from the vehicle.
“As she was removed, her cell phone fell from her lap,” Smith said.
The teenager admitted to looking at her phone rather than the road, which led to her hitting a car stopped at a red light she had not seen. Her injuries put her at risk of losing her legs — and it was all for the sake of a text message.
“It’s my opinion that these are the stories that need to be publicized if we’re going to see real change in behavior,” Smith said.
Sgt. Bill Balafas, a supervisor for the Gilbert Police Department’s Traffic Unit, says that the issue of texting and driving poses a challenge to officers.
“Arizona doesn’t have any laws that prohibit…texting and driving,” he said. “Unfortunately, what happens in most cases is there’s a collision then somebody admits they were distracted.”
Balafas explains that officers observe a number of cues — namely speeding, driving too slow and wide turns — that could indicate a person is distracted by a cell phone.
“We pull over a lot of people who we think are impaired, and they’re really just on the phone,” he said.
According to Balafas, the use of a cell phone while driving disrupts what is called a “divided attention skill.” In other words, driving requires both physical and cognitive efforts to be accomplished safely. By using a cell phone while driving, both efforts are thwarted, putting the driver in severe danger.
A study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration shows that while texting, a driver is at the same level of impairment caused by drinking four beers.
Balafas emphasizes that even though a person cannot be charged specifically for using a cell phone while driving, officers are making extensive efforts to stop drivers before an accident occurs.
“Not only do studies show it,” Balafas said. “But ask any traffic officer — what we see is that it does increase violations and it does increase collisions.”
• Hannah Mitchell is a student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.