Surge in auto accidents tied to distracted driving

Two Fridays ago, I was on my way to lunch, driving east on 12th Street and approaching the busy intersection with U.S. 1, where I came upon a conga line of six northbound cars – nose to tail in the left lane – with all but the last one having been rear-ended in a chain-reaction crash.

All I could do was shake my head. Clearly, somebody wasn’t paying attention. Several somebodies, actually.

There was the driver who braked suddenly to turn left into the Publix shopping center. Then there were the five other drivers who either were following too closely for the speeds they were traveling, or they weren’t focused on what was happening in front of them.

Based on all the careless, aggressive and distracted driving I witness each day as I cruise through our community, it was probably some combination of the two.

Whatever the cause, the scene was a snapshot of the perfect storm of circumstances for traffic accidents in the Vero Beach area, according to Indian River County Traffic Engineer Janie Hollingsworth.

Not only did this particular crash occur in the middle of March, the month that produces the highest number of motor-vehicle accidents, but it also happened during the lunch rush, the peak time for such incidents.

And then there’s this: Rear-end crashes rank No. 1 among the types of motor-vehicle accidents here.

That should surprise no one who spends any time on our roadways, where traffic volume continues to increase – especially during our busy season, which brings more seasonal residents and vacationers to town – and distracted driving becomes a greater threat to public safety.

Local law-enforcement officers, including this area’s Florida Highway Patrol troopers, say they see too much distracted driving, particularly through the use of smartphones. They say it’s a growing problem, one that contributes to more traffic accidents than anyone knows, because it’s difficult to prove and rarely cited as a cause.

They also say the matter should be addressed by the Florida Legislature, which needs to make texting-and-driving a “primary offense,” which would allow officers to stop distracted drivers they see engaging in that activity. Right now, drivers can be cited for texting and driving only if they are stopped for some other offense.

“Distracted driving is certainly a big thing, and there are a lot of crashes where we suspect texting-and-driving but can’t prove it,” Sheriff’s Maj. Eric Flowers said. “Texting-and-driving is against the law, but you almost need to have somebody admit they were doing it to cite them, because it’s only a secondary offense – like not using seat belts was years ago.

“We can’t pull someone over, even if we see them texting or reading messages on their phone,” he added. “And the way the law reads now, if they’re using their phones as a GPS or they’re on Facebook, it’s not texting-and-driving.

“We need the Legislature to give the law more teeth and allow law enforcement to get more information. Until that happens, there’s not much we can do to stop it.”

Usually, drivers in Florida are cited for texting-and-driving only when involved in crashes resulting in major damage, serious bodily injury or death, Flowers said, adding that this state, unlike some others, doesn’t require hands-free use of mobile phones.

Not that law enforcement officers can’t discourage texting-and-driving when they see it.

“If I’m driving in my car and I see someone texting or holding their phone in front of their face, I can’t pull them over,” Vero Beach Police Capt. Kevin Martin said. “But if I’m next to them, I’ll motion to them that they should stop, and most times it works.”

But for how long?

While some people use smart-phone apps that immediately respond to incoming texts with messages saying the person is driving and can’t communicate at that time, too many others – for business or personal reasons – prefer to multitask.

“Distracted driving isn’t only cellphones,” said Lt. Alvaro Feola, spokesman for the FHP’s Fort Pierce-based Troop L, which serves our area. “It can be drivers adjusting their music, putting on makeup, shaving, eating or just daydreaming.

“But the cellphone has become a major distraction,” he added. “If you’re out on the road, in town or on the highways, you see it all the time.”

Even if the Legislature acts, both Flowers and Martin said tougher laws might not be enough to change drivers’ behavior. They’d also like to see phone manufacturers create devices that disable texting when vehicles are in motion.

However, Martin fears that won’t happen until lawsuits are filed against the phone manufacturers, possibly by the parents of teenagers killed in car crashes caused by texting-and-driving.

“That’s probably what it’s going to take,” he said.

Certainly, newer vehicles equipped with sensors and auto-braking should help. But something more needs to be done – and soon.

Whether you’re driving around town or scanning local social-media sites, such as Facebook’s increasingly popular “Vero Beach Eyes and Ears Neighborhood Cyber Watch” page, you’re seeing far too many traffic accidents.

Hollingsworth said the number of motor-vehicle accidents in the county are up noticeably from 10 years ago, but, based on statistics provided by the University of Florida’s “Signal Four Analytics,” they haven’t risen much the past three years and actually dropped slightly in 2018.

However, comparing the period from Jan. 21 to Feb. 21 in 2018 to the same month in 2019, the number of accidents increased from 226 to 251, according to Sheriff’s Office statistics.

Also, statistics provided by the Vero Beach Police Department – for the period from Jan. 1 through March 21 – revealed an increase in calls for service for car crashes in the city from 357 in 2018 to 388 this year.

That makes sense, given all the people who flock to the city’s commercial areas, especially during the midday hours, particularly during our busy season.

Fact is, this community brings together drivers who are seniors, teenagers, working folks, seasonal residents and out-of-town vacationers. They drive for different reasons, and they have different driving habits.

Too often, they’re all on the road at the same time – some of them braking suddenly, following too closely, turning without signaling, drifting into another lane, driving aggressively and speeding.

Too many are distracted, too often by their phones.

“Everybody needs to be aware of their surroundings, know where they’re going and concentrate on driving,” Martin said. “People get too distracted, trying to continue socializing while driving. Your priority should be to get where you’re going.”

If not, you might find yourself in the middle of a conga line.

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