COLUMBIA—Distracted driving is taking a toll.
It's not just chatting and texting on cell phones. Eating behind the wheel, flipping through radio stations and putting on makeup are causing more accidents each year.
“(Distracted driving is) anything that takes attention away from driving. It’s the No. 1 contributing circumstance to all traffic crashes in both Missouri and nationwide,” said Capt. Tim Hull of the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
The number of fatal crashes from distracted driving increased from 8 to 11 percent from 2004 to 2008, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In Missouri, cell phone use while driving contributed to 1,780 traffic accidents in 2009, the Highway Patrol reported.
In the first half of 2010, cell phone use caused 791 traffic accidents, including eight fatalities.
“It’s a growing concern, one area we can do a lot better in,” Hull said.
This week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sponsored its second Distracted Driving Summit in Washington, D.C., to address the problem.
The organization also runs a website to raise awareness of distracted driving. It has developed a toolkit, which can be downloaded for free, to help organizations spread the word, and also produced an interactive game about state texting laws.
Faced with this growing issue, 38 states have enacted anti-texting legislation, including Missouri.
Missouri's law took effect in August 2009. Drivers age 21 and under are prohibited from reading, writing or sending texts while operating a motor vehicle.
If caught doing so, drivers receive a ticket and $200 fine. Attempts to extend the anti-texting legislation to include all Missouri drivers failed to pass in May.
While the anti-texting ban seems like a good idea, law enforcement officers have said for months that the law is difficult to enforce.
Cpl. Paul Meyers, a 14-year veteran of the Highway Patrol stationed with Troop F in Jefferson City, supports the law but acknowledges enforcement problems.
“I have never pulled over anyone for texting and driving. Most of the troopers in Boone County have not either,” Meyers said.
Missouri has 872 state troopers patrolling the roads. But from September 2009 to Aug. 20 only 47 tickets were issued for texting while driving, Meyers said.
Troopers in central Missouri made 17 of those stops.
“We’re barely in the double digits. It’s nice to be on the books, it’s just hard to enforce,” he said.
The Highway Patrol is also working to educate the public about the dangers of driving while texting and other distractions.
In July, an anti-texting campaign was initiated with the help of Con-Way Freight and Roush Fenway Racing. The patrol now has 4-inch-square stickers on the back windows of their vehicles as part of a “safety campaign to make the public aware that any kind of distraction can be a danger while driving,” Hull said.
“It seems our cars are high profile. Anything we put on our cars draws a lot of attention,” Meyers said. “It’s one of those things you’ll never know for sure if it was successful.”
A sampling of younger drivers said they support a texting-while-driving ban, but few were aware of it.
Rebecca Blackmon, a 19-year-old student from St. Louis, said she doesn’t text and drive, but did not know about the law prohibiting it.
Amy Stroth, a 20-year-old MU sophomore from Dallas also hadn’t heard of the texting ban but believes it's a good idea.
She wasn’t sure she would notice an anti-texting sticker.
“I don’t know that I’d be paying that close attention to be reading every bumper sticker on a cop car,” Stroth said.
Quentin Stevenson, a 20-year-old from Richmond, wondered why the law applies only to younger drivers.
“Honestly, if they’re so worried about wrecks that texting and driving may cause, I don’t know why they'd put an age limit on it,” Stevenson said.
Regardless of how difficult the law is to enforce, Meyers still supports it.
“(Texting is) a great form of communication, I’ll admit that,” he said. “But anything that distracts you from driving—I just hate for people to get hurt. I think it’s important. If it gets one person not to do it, it’s worth it.”