Dangerous Distractions

May 3, 2010

By Holly Menino

EUGENE, Ore. — You’ve likely seen the campaigns or heard celebrities saying distracted driving is an epidemic plaguing America.

Oregon is one of very few states that bans the use of handheld cell phones while behind the wheel. But is that law enough to keep the roads safe?

What started as a routine drive on a summer night in 2008 ended up changing 20-year-old Brandon Morse’s life.

“I was just going along my way, and I noticed a car going down the hill going relatively fast,” said Morse.

He was heading up Timberline Drive in South Eugene. He says what happened next is a blur.

“This is right about where she proceeded through this turn and came through the corner and hit me head on,” he said.

What he does remember is what his car looked like after the other driver crossed the center line.

“The whole front end was in. My battery had exploded. My horn was stuck on. The car was completely totaled and I believe hers was as well,” he said.

What happened next was nothing short of a miracle. Both Morse and the other driver walked away from the accident virtually unscathed from the head-on collision.

“I easily think I could’ve walked away with serious injuries, maybe life-changing, and I feel very fortunate about that,” said Morse.

It was a cell phone that caused the other driver to take her eyes off the road and miss the upcoming turn. Accidents like this one have spurred a statewide effort prohibiting drivers from using hand-held cell phones. Six states, including Oregon, have hands-free laws. Twenty-one states have enacted texting bans. Despite Oregon’s law, state troopers say they still see drivers on their cell phones.

“Old habits are hard to break. People have been talking on their cell phones for long periods of time,” said Oregon State Police Sgt. Christopher Ashenfelter.

But just how dangerous is using a cell phone while driving?

“I’ve heard that it’s been compared to the likes of DUIs for the distraction level and for the inability to operate your motor vehicle safely,” said Ashenfelter.

Studies show drivers who talk or text have slower reaction times than drivers whose blood alchohol levels are .06. Statistics show drivers are six times more likely to have an accident while texting and four times more likely while using a cell phone.

State Farm Insurance Agent Jason Stefley sees the dangers of distracted driving on a daily basis.

“Your vehicle is a lethal weapon, so we’ve seen,” he said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates nearly 34,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2009. Using your cell phone is just one of the many dangerous distractions drivers encounter while behind the wheel.

“Things like people eating lunch while they’re driving, talking to somebody else in the vehicle even, disciplining children, shaving, doing your makeup,” said Stefley.

Morse is one of the lucky ones. The NHTSA reports distracted driving kills 6,000 people a year and injures another 500,000. Stefley says Oregon’s hands-free law is a step in the right direction, but the distraction occurs once the call is made.

“State Farm’s position is really that we don’t want drivers on the road distracted. So we just want folks to put the phone down, let it ring, and pay attention to what’s in front of them,” he said.

It was that little distraction in the hands of another driver that put Morse’s life at risk. That crash on a summer night has him looking at the highway in a new way, watching the drivers around him more closely, and advocating to others to keep both hands on the wheel and their mind on the road.

“I don’t use my phone in the car anymore. I do drive differently because of the accident like I said it was a very scary incident, and I can actually still remember the accident. It was a life-changing experience,” said Morse.

That life-changing experience will forever have this 20-year-old driving differently.

Since the law went into effect January 1, 2010, Oregon State police troopers have cited 184 drivers for using handheld devices while driving and warned 692 others. Using a cell phone without a hands-free accessory while driving is a class D traffic violation and comes with a fine of $142.

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