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Our View: Feds jump into distracted driving debate

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opinion River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

A recent survey indicated that 58 percent of high school seniors had texted or emailed while driving.

On June 7, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a proposal that would apparently increase federal efforts to stop distracted driving.

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Fortunately, Wisconsin is one of several states that take distracted driving seriously and has banned texting while driving. Others have even gone as far as to ban talking on a cell phone while driving -- that is not the case in Wisconsin. But as of yet, there has been no coordinated federal effort to address the continuing problem. We think it's a good thing that the feds are getting involved as well.

State officials say 18 percent of Wisconsin's vehicle crashes in 2009 were caused by distracted drivers. Research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that in 2008 alone nearly 6,000 people were killed and more than a half million people were injured nationwide in crashes involving a distracted driver. Almost 20 percent of all crashes that same year involved some type of distraction.

A recent survey indicated that 58 percent of high school seniors had texted or emailed while driving during the previous month. That's a frightening statistic. Hopefully things are better in the Hudson area where a local effort, Hang Up and Drive, has involved hundreds of local youths. But the problems are obvious. As one person put it, "it's like trying to write your Christmas cards while driving."

There are also other issues -- in an attempt to save time by multitasking behind the wheel, drivers may choose to eat a meal, search for items in the glove box, use a cell phone, or comb their hair while staring in the rear view mirror. Their attention is focused everywhere except where it should be -- on the road.

Because of the dangers of distracted driving, Wisconsin state law prohibits drivers from being "so engaged or occupied as to interfere with the safe driving of that vehicle."

Texting with a cell phone while driving recently has become a more prevalent and dangerous form of distracted driving because it diverts a driver's eyes, hands, and mind -- for a significant amount of time -- from the safe operation of the vehicle.

Wisconsin state law forbids driving "any motor vehicle while composing or sending an electronic text message or an electronic mail message." Wisconsin's texting ban is a primary enforcement law, which means law enforcement officers may stop motorists suspected of this offense alone.

The proposed federal plan would put pressure on states to crack down on dangerous driving habits by enacting legislation and educating young adults on the importance of focusing on the road.

A couple of pilot programs, in Delaware and California, will help to kick off the campaign. The plans specifically target cell phone use (both texting and calling) by teenagers and young adults while driving.

According to research, many young drivers say they know texting while driving is dangerous yet they report that they take part in the behavior.

Distracted driving is a preventable behavior and every effort should be made to stop that habit early in a driver's experience on the road. LaHood's announcement is a positive step in the right direction of protecting young drivers, and all drivers, from serious injury and even death.

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