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Tucson seeking to curb distracted driving

Texting while driving (Photo by: Alyssa Schlitzer/Arizona Sonora News Service)

One quick text behind the wheel can end in a lifetime full of guilt.

Since the invention of cell phones, distracted driving accidents have become increasingly more common around the world, causing 1.6 million crashes each year.

Nearly 2,600 people die and 330,000 are injured every year from motor vehicle accidents, according to The National Safety Council.

Arizona does not have a law against texting and driving as some other states do. Local jurisdictions, such as the City of Tucson and Pima County have statutes against it within their jurisdictions, according to Quentin Mehr, the public information officer for the Arizona Department of Public Safety public affairs unit.

The City of Tucson recently passed an ordinance that makes any mobile handheld device use while driving a secondary offense. Under the ordinance, 11442, the driver must be pulled over for another violation, such as running a stop sign or speeding first, before being charged with distracted driving.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors will vote on a primary offense hands free cell phone ordinance on May 2. A primary offense means law enforcement can issue drivers a citation even if the officer observes no other violation beforehand, according to the Find Law Traffic website.

Three months ago, Oro Valley also passed a distracted driving law, called the “hands-free ordinance.” The ordinance prohibits drivers from using electronic devices while driving a motor vehicle. Drivers are able to use Bluetooth or mount their phones to the dash, according to Sharp.

Sharp believes the hands-free ordinance has made a significant step forward in making people realize distracted driving is a serious problem.

Oro Valley officers have made 600 traffic stops since the ordinance’s enactment. The officers have not written any tickets because the intent of the ordinance is for educational purposes, Sharp said.

“When people are pulled over, they aren’t making excuses. Most of them are apologizing and know it’s unsafe to be distracted while driving,” he said.

When people use smartphones in their car to respond to a text message, check social media, surf the Internet or take photos, they make irrational decisions that could lead to a deadly accident, said David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.

Research shows hands-free devices are still distracting, although, Greenfield believes they are not as distracting as holding a phone. When people type a text and then put their phone back down, it takes about three to four seconds. During those three to four seconds, going 65 mph, they travel 400 feet, which is enough time for an accident to occur.

“Basically what happens is that we use phones compulsively and addictively out of the car and we don’t stop doing that when we are in the car,” he said.

Someone who knows the consequences of distracted driving accidents is Brendan Lyons, a bicycle safety advocate and founder of Look Save a Life, a nonprofit in Tucson.

Lyons has been struck by a distracted driving three times. The third accident occurred in 2013 and left him with a traumatic brain injury.

Lyons was involved in his first distracted driving accident in 2009. A car pulled out of an apartment complex and turned into the bike lane where Lyons was riding and hit him.  It was a hit and run.

“I went head over handle bars, tore up my chin, needed a few stitches and went back to my job a couple of weeks later,” Lyons said.

Two years later, Lyons was involved in another distracted driving accident. He was riding his bike on the receiving end of a right hook when a motorist pulled right in front of him and caused another crash. This time he ended up in the hospital.

During this time, Lyons was a firefighter and said he had responded to several difference instances of distracted driving in the course of a month after his second accident.

“Realizing that I had been effected by this now, both personally and professionally, I wanted to do something about the problem. So I started a campaign of awareness through Look Save a Life,” he said.

Lyons was inspired to start Look Save a Life after his first two accidents to educate people and drivers about the importance of road safety and awareness.

Ironically, shortly after starting Look Save a Life, Lyons and his fiancé were struck by another vehicle in 2013 while riding their bikes. This accident left him in the hospital with several fractured vertebrae, a fractured pelvis and a long road of recovery and rehabilitation.

Lyons was unable to continue his career as a firefighter because of the accident, so he decided to enroll at Pima Community College. He quickly discovered the motorist who almost killed him in the third accident attended the same institution.

“I was nervous and apprehensive when I found out,” Lyons said. “What would I say if I bumped into him in the halls? What would he say?”

That year, Lyons spoke at the Pima Community College Multicultural Convocation about his story, with roughly 500 to 1000 people in the audience. Afterward there was a catered reception. Lyons was getting food, looked up and to his surprise saw the man who almost killed him standing right in front of him.

“I approached him, said his name and introduced myself. He looked at me as if he’d seen a ghost and extended his arm out to shake my hand,” Lyons said. “I dismissed it and gave him a hug. The first words out of my mouth were I forgive you. In that moment all this guilt, anger and resentment lifted off my shoulders. It was a very powerful moment.”

Look Save a Life has been a very powerful outlet in bringing Lyons in touch with so many other families whose lives have been altered by distracted driving accidents.

“Whenever somebody gets hit or ends up in a hospital, if I can find out who that is and what room they are in I often try to visit them and be an advocate,” he said.

Look Save a Life has made a big impact on the Tucson community in a short amount of time. Lyons said they have visited numerous high schools to talk about the epidemic of distracted driving by sharing raw stories from real distracted driving victims as a way to empower students to be safer drivers. The nonprofit also reaches out and visits people in hospitals who have been affected by distracted driving accidents.

People check their phones hundreds of times a day, in and out of the car, which has led to an increase in accidents all around the world, according to Greenfield.

All pleasurable behaviors elevate dopamine, which is a primitive area of the midbrain in the limbic system that contains “reward circuits.” Certain survival based behaviors and instincts are linked to elevations of dopamine, particularly eating and sex, according to Greenfield.

When someone gets a text message, the sound of his or her ringtone also elevates a level of dopamine. When they check their phones, they are expecting something to be there and get a double hit of dopamine every time that happens, Greenfield said.

“What happened with the Internet is that it just accidentally ended up in the same ballpark. We didn’t know that it was going to become a dopamine stimulating behavior, but it has. And it has pretty much from the very beginning and it’s only gotten more so because of the speed and access and dissociation people experience when they use the Internet,” Greenfield said.

Distracted driving has been around since vehicles were created. Although, technological advances have increased the amount of distractions behind the wheel, said Lyons.

Lyons believes it is important that phone use while driving becomes a first offense in Tucson, and everywhere else around the world. He said it is mind blowing that legislature is not taking a faster precedence to get these laws passed. Distracted driving accidents kill every day and families are left to face the burden of these 100 percent preventable losses.

“If we are to bring about the kind of change history has shown us, for example the widespread use of seat belts, child restraints and drunk driving laws, it will take time and commitment. Change will require good education and outreach, good laws and good enforcement,” Lyons said.

Alyssa Schlitzer is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News Service, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at alyssaschlitzer@email.arizona.edu 

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