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Lawmakers Announce 'U Drive, U Text, U Pay' As Local Traffic Expert Shares Concerns



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While distracted driving enforcement is heightened during targeted campaigns like one launching this week, a Newtown traffic safety scientist believes Connecticut and the nation will have to ratchet up enforcement as he worries behaviors like texting while driving may be getting worse.

This week marks the launch of “U Drive. U Text. U Pay.” — Connecticut’s annual distracted driving enforcement and checkpoint program. The potentially life-saving campaign is being commended by Newtown State Representative Mitch Bolinsky, who is employed as a driving instructor when he is not in session.

“According to the National Safety Council, distracted driving has become the number two cause of preventable death behind the wheel, only exceeded by operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs. But, not for long. Distracted driving fatalities are increasing each year and, I believe, may soon be the leading cause of death while driving,” said Bolinsky.

“I support law enforcement and well-publicized events like this because they absolutely save lives. However, I wish it weren’t needed at all. Texting while driving kills and, often, there’s no second chance,” he added.

“There’s nothing more valuable in the world than life itself, and none of us will ever get or send a text message important enough to possibly take our own, or someone else’s life,” he continued. “It can wait. It must wait. There are people who love you. How would your one bad choice affect them?”

Through the initiative, Bolinsky said officers will be cracking down on motorists who text, talk, or distract themselves with a hand-held mobile phone while driving. The campaign runs August 1-15 and is now in its sixth year.

The community will see an increased and highly visible law enforcement presence on the roadways as officers will be stopping and ticketing anyone who is texting and driving.

Over the past decade, distracted driving has become one of the leading causes of vehicle crashes on the nation’s roads. Since 2015, nearly 33,000 crashes in Connecticut have involved a distraction, resulting in 45 fatal crashes.

Fines in Connecticut for violations begin at $150 for a first offense, increase to $300 for a second offense, and are $500 for subsequent violations.

AAA Praises Hwang

AAA Northeast applauded State Senator Tony Hwang (R-28) on August 5 for his continuing efforts to raise awareness of the dangers of distracted driving.

At a news conference at Fairfield Police Department, AAA joined Sen Hwang, Fairfield Police, Connecticut State Police, and other traffic safety advocates, including Newtown police commission member and traffic safety scientist Neil Chaudhary, PhD, to call attention to the “U Drive. U Text. U Pay.” campaign.

Senator Hwang called distracted driving accidents both preventable tragedies and “a national epidemic with over 3,150 dying annually in vehicle crashes due to distracted driving, and [a] one in four probability that a vehicle crash involves a cell phone.”

“Most of us are guilty of peeking at our phone and typing a quick text while we are driving,” Hwang said. “Unfortunately, a few distracted seconds could forever change your life and possibly the lives of innocent victims and their families.”

Despite numerous educational and advertising campaigns reminding drivers to put phones away while driving, motorists continue to partake in dangerous behavior behind the wheel, said Fran Mayko, AAA Northeast spokeswoman.

And even though enforcement efforts such as the “U Drive. U Text. U Pay.” campaign can change behavior temporarily, motorists tend to fall back into their bad driving habits involving cellphone use, said Mayko.

This is why Dr Chaudhary is expressing concern.

He said that raw data over the last few months — while many fewer drivers were on the roads due to pandemic restrictions — showed young male drivers still operating under some type of driving distraction.

“That is the only demographic where we saw a slight increase, all others went down during the spring when the coronavirus had a lot of businesses and places shut down, resulting in fewer vehicles on the road,” Dr Chaudhary said.

Distractions And Aging

The traffic scientist suggested a kind of perfect storm in the making, as virtually everyone uses mobile technology everywhere, including behind the wheel, and as these younger males, who are still showing greater tendency to ignore or discount distracted driving safety, begin getting older.

At the same time Dr Chaudhary sees an already aging driving population (60 and older) that has already exhibited risk factors tied to distractions like dashboard readouts and infotainment systems becoming more savvy with, and using smart phones for, things like texting.

“As older drivers become more inclined to use smart phones, there will be a natural extension to doing things like texting or using other phone features while driving,” he said. “And these are folks who already tend to have delayed reaction times and slower reflexes.”

That is why he strongly supports frequent and systematic law enforcement initiatives to both educate and punish those who text and drive, or who are at risk because of some other similar distracting activity.

“The rates of distraction among these older drivers is still much lower than among younger drivers, but if this increase persists it could indicate a dangerous trend,” he said.

Dr Chaudhary’s concern extends to pedestrians, who are more often becoming victims when drivers are not paying attention.

“According to NHTSA, about 15 percent of all injury crashes nationally have distraction as a factor,” he said. “These distractions claimed nearly 3,000 lives in 2018, including 400 pedestrian lives.”

Hwang added that traffic and safety is “paramount.”

“The recent tragic incidents of vehicle-pedestrian accidents heightens the need for increased enforcement and awareness,” he added. “It is all about saving lives.”

Chaudhary also sees a continued uptrend in mobile device ownership and use.

“Over the five-year period from 2014 to 2018, based on most recent available data, there was a 53 percent increase in the number of cell phone-only households in Connecticut,” he said. “That means for that for many more people, 100 percent of their communications follow them into their vehicle.”

Mayko, the regional AAA spokesperson, said one solution could be simply using a “do not disturb” feature on one’s mobile device — if drivers know how to activate it.

The setting will not interrupt the driver with alerts, notifications, or calls while in a moving vehicle.

“Unfortunately, many drivers don’t realize such a setting appears on smartphones,” Mayko added.

In fact, a 2018 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study found that half of drivers whose cell phones had DND features did not activate the setting because they either did not know the feature existed, did not know how to use it, or simply chose not to use it, she said.

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Newtown police commission member and traffic safety scientist Neil Chaudhary, PhD, speaks on August 3 at Fairfield police headquarters, during the launch of Connecticut’s annual “U Drive. U Text. U Pay.” distracted driving enforcement and checkpoint program. Among those joining Chaudhary was State Senator Tony Hwang, on the left. — photo courtesy Senator Tony Hwang
According to the National Safety Council, distracted driving has become the number two cause of preventable death behind the wheel, exceeded only by operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
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