Driven to Distraction

New Mexico drivers get busy on the road. Do laws designed to make them pay attention work?

(Anson Stevens-Bollen)

It’s rush hour on I-25. Thousands of drivers hurtle home at 80 miles per hour on their way to Albuquerque from jobs in the capital city. They are thinking about getting home. Or maybe they’re thinking about dinner. Many have stopped thinking about work.

Some seem to have stopped thinking entirely.

"It's crazy, the things I've seen," Bruce Brown tells SFR. He's been driving to work in Santa Fe for the past two years. "It's not like it's bumper-to-bumper traffic, or needs to be. … But people are tailgating and driving like it's NASCAR."

Often, he says, he'll look in his rearview mirror and see the person riding his bumper is also looking at their cellphone.

"I see people drifting out of their lane every day," Brown says. "It's a very common thing."

Texting and driving has been against the law in New Mexico since 2014, yet the law doesn't seem to be making drivers pay attention. Statistics from the state Department of Transportation's Traffic Safety Bureau show driver distraction has been on the rise since then—both the number of crashes and its share of total crashes on the road.

In Santa Fe, drivers have been banned from using hand-held cellphones since 2002. In 2005, officers wrote more than 2,000 tickets for cellphone violations.

Today, police say distracted driving is the city's number one cause of accidents. But this year, through the end of August, Santa Fe police officers have written just 424 tickets to motorists for talking or texting while driving.

It’s illegal, but many of us do it anyway, and this guy did it downtown this week. Experts say it’s hard to prove laws prohibiting cellphone use prevent crashes. (Matt Grubs)

“We don’t have enough people on the street to tackle every case we see,” writes police spokesman Greg Gurule. Police have to make choices. A driver might be blatantly talking on a hand-held phone or clearly have their face buried in a text message. They could be using both hands to unwrap a breakfast burrito—while moving. They could be messing with the radio or something else on the dash. There’s no shortage of people breaking the law, but the plain truth is, they can’t all be ticketed.

"We have to be selective in who we stop, depending on how egregious the violation is," Gurule says. "Because we know these cases frequently wind up in court … which means one of our officers is off the street and in court for an extended period of time."

City councilors have been grappling with officer shortages at the police department for years. It's one of the reasons the council just voted to bring back unmanned speeding-enforcement SUVs.

"Being down 20 or 25 officers, it's really very, very hard to run traffic enforcement. And it's frustrating for the police and it's frustrating for motorists," Councilor Signe Lindell tells SFR between council sessions at City Hall.

But the city hasn't always been so woefully understaffed at the police department. And a decade ago, police were writing more than 100 tickets a month.

Councilor Chris Rivera offers a few thoughts before a dinner break at a council meeting. Before he was elected, Rivera was the city's fire chief. He retired in 2009. He's seen firsthand the damage that distracted driving can cause. Any error at highway speed can have fatal consequences. Crashes around town can be deadly, too.

Last November, a Pecos woman hit and killed a motorcyclist at a stoplight on Cerrillos Road during a power outage. Police initially believed she had been texting prior to running into 39-year-old Jerry Hicks as he stopped at a blacked-out signal. A search of her phone records, however, revealed the woman hadn't used her phone at the time of the crash. She told police she was confused by the power outage, but that she was also distracted when she hit Hicks; thinking about her ex-husband.

Rivera doesn't consider the city's ban on hand-held cellphone use or texting to be useless. It can send a message to drivers that the city wants them to concentrate on the road. And it can send a message to automakers. As cities and states pass more laws to prohibit using cellphones, manufacturers of both phones and vehicles have pushed to find technological solutions both to handling or blocking text messages for drivers and to correcting distraction-borne errors like veering out of a lane.

But have local laws been effective at reducing crashes?

"I'm not sure that they've helped," Rivera says. He's heard the police talk about distractions causing crashes. And he's on the road every day. "I think anyone who continues to drive around the city will see that people are frequently on their cellphone or texting."

Santa Fe isn't alone in its frustration with anti-distraction laws that don't seem to do anything other than get people to stash their phone as soon as they see a cop. Nationwide, traffic safety experts say that when cities or states pass a ban on hand-held cellphone use, drivers do change their behavior. They go hands-free more often and they limit texting. But many don't stop, and there hasn't been a corresponding drop in crashes.

"That's what's really been perplexing to us," says Jessica Cicchino, vice president of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Virginia. What she and others who have studied distracted drivers have found is an incredibly complex equation that has no clear solution. There are almost limitless ways drivers can be distracted, and factors like the strength of the economy can contribute to who is on the road and when.

"Drivers have been distracted since driving began," Cicchino tells SFR. "People talk to their kids, they talk to other people in the vehicle. They eat and drink. They change the radio station."

She fully admits that distractions like texting are particularly troublesome, but says researchers have noticed a tendency of drivers to do more challenging things like eating or texting when they're stopped at a light or stop sign. Cellphones were still the most prevalent distraction in a recent IIHS study, but drivers seem to at least unconsciously acknowledge that they require more attention than it's often safe to give.

At Texas A&M's Transportation Institute, Robert Wunderlich is the director of the Center for Transportation Safety. He's also reluctant to talk a reporter who pledges that he's conducting the interview on a cellphone using a hands-free device—while driving.

"Morally, I don't think I can do that," Wunderlich decides. A few minutes later, with a promise that the reporter is safely seated at his desk, Wunderlich explains why.

"We did research over the last three years—cognitive, emotional, sensory motoric—and what we found was that any task that requires taking your eyes off the road is a potentially very serious distraction," he says.

Drivers seem to be able to make symmetrical corrections when they're talking or singing or drinking a cup of coffee and looking at the road. Small adjustments can be made almost subconsciously to keep a car in its lane. But the human brain doesn't do well when the eyes aren't targeting what's ahead. That's when asymmetrical corrections happen. Drivers veer out of a lane and jerk the wheel back too far. Or they brake too hard. These are more common results, Wunderlich says, when drivers are manipulating a hand-held device. They're texting.

A University of Utah study in 2015 performed for the auto group AAA found that even hands-free technology like Apple's Siri can distract a driver for more than the length of two football fields at 25 mph. It's not hard to imagine how much could go wrong in that distance on a street in Tierra Contenta or in downtown Santa Fe.

Nationwide, the number of drivers observed talking on the phone is actually down, but crashes are up. Pedestrian fatalities are up. But the research community hasn't been able to reliably connect that to distracted driving.

For one thing, there are more cars on the road, and most roads haven't gotten wider or better-maintained. The increase in drivers is partly because the economy has been improving, which means more people can afford a car, gas and insurance. That's especially true with younger drivers, who were laid off in droves when the economy hit the skids in 2007. They're now on the road with less experience, but are more likely to be distracted.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found earlier this year that younger drivers don't necessarily believe texting and driving or talking on a cellphone is wrong.

"Alarmingly, some of the drivers ages 19-24 believe that their dangerous driving behavior is acceptable," David Yang, the foundation's executive director, said in a news release at the time.

Lastly, distracted driving is an incredibly hard factor to measure. Police who generate the reports researchers use rarely witness a crash firsthand.

"If you're distracted, unless you self-report that, there's not really a way to track that," Wunderlich says. "It's very challenging. Distracted driving is reported in 14 percent of fatalities, but is it more? Probably. That's probably the least amount that it is."

David Berkeley bikes to Wood Gormley Elementary School each day with his kids. Jackson, a fifth-grader, has been pedaling to class since he was in kindergarten. His brother, Noah, is in second grade. The family lives about a mile from school.

David Berkeley bikes to Wood Gormley Elementary School each day with his kids. (Courtesy Image)

“As a cyclist I definitely get to look into cars a lot, so I can see how much people are on their phones,” Berkeley says. “And it’s pretty frightening.”

He and the boys try to stick to lesser-used roads when they ride. The steep hill on Gildersleeve Street often presents a problem with drivers who blow through the stop signs at the bottom along Buena Vista Street.

"I always go first and then park myself in the middle [of the intersection] and let the kids zoom by," Berkeley tells SFR.

Just last week, he almost got nailed by a driver who was either not expecting someone or too distracted to notice the stop sign.

The kids have spent their young lives on bikes, and Berkeley says Jackson is now old enough—and savvy enough—to bike home alone on some days.

"I'm trying to be trusting," he says, recalling zipping around his neighborhood on his bike when he was a kid. "But it's a very different world than it used to be."

Berkeley's not about to get sanctimonious about distraction.

"I'm as guilty as anybody. I'll eat and do all sorts of things, but it does seem like there's people who think [texting] isn't the danger that it is," he says. People think they're not as distracted as other drivers. They can do both.

He then cautiously offers a theory that matches what researchers have found: "The problem is you can get so engrossed in the phone. There's a different kind of time suck. You have a skewed sense of how long you're distracted."

That level of distraction—at 55 mph it takes just 5 seconds to cover a football field—is part of the reason the state has spent money on a spinoff of its ENDWI ad campaign called DNTXT. The anti-drunken driving effort has helped reduce DWI fatalities by 45 percent in a decade, says Richard Kuhn, ad agency executive and creator of the campaign. But that's driven by federal money from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. There's no such money available for anti-texting ads.

"People forget," Kuhn says about the need for such a campaign. "Unless we're in front of them over and over again saying: This is what happens."

RK Venture, Kuhn's company, has produced billboards and other kinds of advertising. But he says there's little state money available for getting ads on television to provide the kind of constant reminder he thinks is necessary.

Plus, it's harder to track the impact of such an awareness campaign. People don't volunteer their distraction to police. Unless it's obvious, inattentiveness may go unreported. Lawmakers can't see what kind of bang they get for their buck.

"The laws are new," Kuhn adds. "I think we're in the middle of the pack as far as how tough they are—$100 for the the first offense and $200 for the second. I don't know if that's enough of a deterrent."

Back at City Hall, it's clear Signe Lindell isn't a fan of useless laws. She wants to believe the ban on hand-held cellphones, particularly texting on them, is working.

"Intuitively, we think that we would be safer. I think texting is much more distracting than conversing on the phone," Councilor Lindell says.

She admittedly spends most of her time downtown and, remembering an old bumper sticker that said "Pray the rosary for me; I drive Cerrillos Road," she'll take the sane alternative, Agua Fría Street, to the Southside. But no one who's on the road can avoid some sort of interaction with a driver who seems to be doing something else as a primary activity.

"When people are distracted, they roll through stop signs, they don't put their turn signals on—I've had three emails in the last week complaining of no signal use," she says.

The city has found there aren't easy solutions to the problem. Really cracking down takes more police, something Santa Fe doesn't have. And, Chris Rivera says, many drivers don't seem terribly interested in changing their habits. Instead, they've become experts at not getting caught.

"People are getting smarter about how they do it. They put their phone down low or they put it on speaker," Rivera muses. "It still leads to inattentiveness, but it makes enforcement very difficult."

By The Numbers

US Drivers Observed Using Hand-Held Cellphones

2007 - 6.2%
2013 - 3.8%

US Drivers Visibly Texting

2007 - 0.7%
2013 - 2.2%

Distracted-Driving Crashes in NM

2013 - 18,921
2015 - 21,255


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