State launches campaign aimed at ending distracted driving
Drivers told ‘It can wait’
— Drivers traveling through Cecil County on Interstate 95 will find a designated area at the Chesapeake House Rest Stop where use of a cellphone is encouraged.
Maryland’s Department of Transportation, Transportation Authority Police and Maryland State Police along with AT&T and AAA Mid-Atlantic have joined forces to present the “It Can Wait” campaign, launched Thursday at the Maryland House Rest Stop.
The first of 26 signs in the statewide campaign were erected Thursday at the rest stops near North East and Aberdeen.
The goal is to end all distracted driving, but specifically what these agencies say is a growing problem with drivers texting or making other use of cellphones while at the wheel.
Those signs mark off areas where drivers are welcome to get out of travel lanes and check on missed messages and phone calls. It’s an effort to keep them from doing so while the vehicle is in motion.
“Park your phone,” said Lt. Col. Anthony Satchell, chief of the MSP Field Operations Division. “I don’t think a cellphone is more important than a life.”
Speaking on behalf of law enforcement, Satchell talked about one of the hardest things a police officer faces.
“It’s heart-wrenching thing when we have to come to your door and tell you your kid is dead,” Satchell said.
Christine Nizer, administrator of the Motor Vehicle Administration, said April has been designated as Distracted Driving Month.
“Which is why we’re rolling out these new signs (reminding drivers) no texting, no handheld cellphones,” Nizer said. “Stop here and make your cellphone calls, send your texts.”
Nizer said 230 people in Maryland died last year because of distracted driving. Driver distraction is the cause of nearly 60 percent of accidents in the state, nearly half of which result in a fatality.
Ragina C. Averella, manager of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said a recent survey showed at despite of the known threat, people still take the chance.
“Forty-two percent of survey respondents indicated that distracted driving was their most important traffic safety concern in 2016,” she said.
“We have to make our roads safe for everybody,” added Denis P. Dunn, state president of external and legislative affairs for AT&T.
Dunn said it is still considered a privilege to “drive a ton of steel 45, 55, 65 mph. If you take your eye off the task, you risk your life and the life of your passengers,” he said.
He said 70 percent of drivers polled admit they still text and drive.
Currently, a driver ticketed for distracted driving can be fined as much as $160 and get points on his license, Nizer said. However, pending legislation before the Maryland General Assembly could make the penalty stiffer, she said.
Drivers causing a crash while using a cellphone could spend a year in jail and pay fines up to $5,000.
Satchell said officers have seen drivers engaging in all sorts of activities when piloting more than a ton of steel should have been job one.
“Unfortunately we are in a day and age where everyone has to multi-task,” he said. “This puts everyone at risk.”
Cheryl Sparks, MDTA communications director, got into a simulator to see for herself the dangers of texting while at the wheel.
“Clearly it was a distraction,” she said. “I was swerving off the road in the simulator and there are cars coming at you like you’re driving down the road.”
Sparks said it proved to her that a vehicle can travel the length of several football fields while its driver stares at a cellphone screen.
“When you put it in the context of putting your kids’ lives at risk ... it’s not about you,” she added.
Satchell said parents need to take the lead by example, as their children become drivers, to make it a clear rule.
“Tell your kids to turn that phone off,” he said.
At the very least, Nizer urged drivers to use a tool many phones have preinstalled that answers the phone for you as you drive, or look into the many free apps available that accomplish the same.
Ragina C. Averella, manager of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said more than half the crashes in the state can be blamed on distracted driving and, of those, half are fatal.
Cheryl Sparks, director of communications for the Maryland Transportation Authority, tries to text and drive in a simulator parked at the Maryland House near Aberdeen Thursday.