FAIRFIELD, Conn. – The recent death of a Norwalk jogger and charges that the driver was using a cell phone at the time have highlighted the dangers of distracted driving in the Fairfield area. But especially when it comes to teens, talking and texting aren’t the only distractions that can lead to accidents.
“This is a very, very serious issue that’s plaguing our community,” Deputy Police Chief Chris Lyddy said recently about distracted driving.
More than 448,000 people were injured in accidents caused by distracted driving in 2009, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. More than 5,754 people died in similar accidents that same year. Distracted driving accounted for 20 percent of all injury crashes, and 16 percent of fatal collisions.
Talking and texting while driving are the most prominent forms of distracted driving. For example, the Fairfield Police have issued 301 tickets for related offenses since the beginning of the year. Of those, 286 were for using a cellphone while driving.
But nationally, 18 percent of fatal crashes and 5 percent of injury-related accidents included reports of cellphone use. The rest involved other factors, including other people or objects inside the car, adjusting the radio or other electronics, eating or drinking and “daydreaming.”
Passengers in cars have proven especially dangerous for young drivers. Having a passenger under 21 in the car makes 16- and 17-year-old drivers 44 percent more likely to get into a fatal accident, according to a recent study by AAA.
The rate goes up exponentially with each extra passenger. Three or more young riders causes a teen driver’s fatal accident rate to quadruple. Having an adult over 35 in the car, however, reduces the risk of a fatal crash by 62 percent.
“The connection between carrying young passengers and increased fatal crash risk is clear, and placing appropriate limits is a key part of graduated driver licensing in Connecticut,” said Fran Mayko with AAA Southern New England.
A state law enacted in 2008 prohibits 16 and 17-year-old drivers from having any passengers other than parents or licensed drivers for the first six months they have licenses. The law also says that they can only carry family members or licensed drivers as passengers for the six months after that.
Fairfield Police have issued four tickets for that offense this year. Public Information Officer Sgt. Suzanne Lussier says the law is difficult to enforce and infractions are usually issued only when teens are pulled over for other offenses.
“You really can’t determine the age of someone just driving by,” Lussier said. “There’s too much variation in how people look at a certain age. There’s not enough reasonable suspicion to stop a person.”
To cut down on distracted driving, Fairfield Police have launched campaigns with the Police Explorers, a group of 12- to 18-year-olds who volunteer with the department. The students will design advertisements warning their peers against the dangers of distracted driving. They have also handed out rubber thumb bands reading “U TXT, UR NEXT,” designed to make it impossible to text and drive.
AAA will hold monthly workshops throughout the area for parents and teens to learn the dangers of distracted driving and Connecticut’s laws for young drivers. The organization also has information for parents and their young drivers available at its website.
“It’s critical, too, that parents enforce the law and family rules that restrict passengers and help keep their teens safe,” Mayko added.