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State to use SOU study to fight distracted driving

Oregon’s law against driving while cell phoning is not working. Violations and phone-related accidents and fatalities are going up since the ban was passed in 2013, causing the state to launch a new strategy based on research at Southern Oregon University.

“We’re definitely seeing a great increase in the numbers where distracted driving causes injuries and fatalities,” said Tom Fuller, communications manager for Oregon Department of Transportation, after viewing a presentation of research and recommended strategies from four SOU students in the Master’s in Business Administration program Monday.

The plan, he adds, is “very helpful to us and is going to be the bedrock of our program.”

An appellate court decision “neutered all Oregon laws against using a cell phone while driving,” Fuller said, unless police witness the driver operating the phone’s buttons. He adds, “police tell us there’s no way we can write a ticket, unless we get some clarification from the 2017 Legislature or the Supreme Court, but we’re not going to wait for that.”

However, Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara said police here are still “vigorously” giving tickets for cell phone use by drivers — and have given 145 of them so far. It’s a “very serious problem” but, he adds, Ashland’s two most recent fatalities were from drunk driving, not phones.

SOU’s proposed plan surveyed 1,560 people and notes:

• Distracted driving has become “an epidemic … pervasive and entrenched in our society.” 

• New technologies are making it more inviting to use phones while driving. 

• In Oregon, fatal crashes increased 33 percent in the year ending September 2015 and 60 percent of these crashes came from distracted driving. 

• Half of drivers answer calls while driving. 

• Teens learn distracted driving from parents.

• Many drivers say they do it alone but not with passengers. 

• Texting is the most distracting, then lifestyle (drinking, eating, grooming, children), then social media (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook). 

• Social change is needed. It should use influential people, especially parents and friends, to get the message across. It should use short video clips on TV and social media. Soon, a “tipping point” is reached and (like smoking) most people get with the rules. 

• Only a fourth of respondents said education would help. Half favored law enforcement and higher fines. The fine now is $142. Some states charge $500. 

• Respondents favored more highway signs, raising violations to a class B offense with $1,000 maximum fine and mandatory driver education. 

Fuller said the Oregon Transportation Commission a few months ago asked ODOT to create a broader campaign on distracted driving — and it will be based on the original research of SOU, which is superior to the earlier research of the American Automobile Association, he said, because it was done on Oregonians and learned their attitudes and behaviors and who they listen to.

Because so many people admitted to texting and phoning while alone in the car, but not with others, Fuller said, “we’re going to play off that shame, so eventually, they won’t do it at all.”

Because TV is expensive, ODOT will probably push its campaign on social media, with the focus on positive approaches. However, the SOU team showed one video where a teen girl, now dead because of distracted driving, writes a letter to her parents, urging them to tell friends to “put it away” and focus on driving.

Cell phones and their ocean of information and contacts from friends have become an “addiction,” Fuller notes. “People suffer from info-mania and have an inability to stop looking at websites. We’re going to be looking at the science of how to get the message across to people. Research shows that distracted driving is more dangerous than drunk driving because it (eyes off the road) goes on away.”

The new “heads up” display, which shows a screen in the air just below the line of vision, allows drivers to have both road and screen in their awareness — and, he said, may become part of ODOT’s positive strategy.

“We can’t get in their car and make them stop, but we can get in their head and that’s where we’re going with this,” said Fuller.

The study was done by master’s degree students Angela Durant, Kelsie Lawson, Simon Schubnell and Kristina Wolf, with Dr. Donna Lane as their teacher.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.