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Drivers who use cell phones while driving pose major risk, law enforcement says

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distracted crash

Emergency workers examine a November 2021 multi-car accident in Lincoln County that was caused by fog and driver distraction.

Despite new laws and public-information campaigns, distracted driving and cell phone use behind the wheel continue to make roadways dangerous.

Though national data show a slight decline in speeding and use of hand-held phones behind the wheel over the past decade, 45% of U.S. drivers reported to the American Automobile Association that they drove 15 or more mph over the speed limit in 2020, while 37% of drivers used a hand-held cell phone and 34% read a text message or email while driving last year.

According to another recent national survey by Volkswagen, half of South Dakotans reported that they used social media on their phones while driving in the past year, and nearly one in five admitted to taking a “selfie” photo while behind the wheel.

In South Dakota in fiscal year 2020, distracted driving was listed as a contributing factor in 840 of the total 17,599 motor-vehicle accidents, or 4.8% of all crashes.

Col. Rick Miller, superintendent of the South Dakota Highway Patrol, said drivers continue to use their cell phones even though they are well aware of potential consequences.

“I wish I had the magical answer of why people are still doing this, but I don’t,” he said. “It takes your reaction time and makes it almost nothing. If something happens in front of you, you have very little time to react.”

Texting while driving in South Dakota has been illegal for a decade but was not a reason an officer could pull a driver over until July 2020. Texting became a primary offense at the same time the state made it a misdemeanor to use a cell phone in a vehicle for any reason other than in emergencies or to make a phone call. Several South Dakota cities banned texting while driving over the past decade as well.

South Dakota had a high-profile distracted driving death in September 2020 when Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg struck and killed pedestrian Joe Boever near Highmore. Ravnsborg later pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors of illegal lane change and using a cell phone while driving. He was fined but served no jail time; Ravnsborg is now the subject of an impeachment investigation by the South Dakota House of Representatives.

Miller and other law enforcement experts acknowledge that enforcing laws against texting or other distracted driving is difficult because drivers may hide their behaviors.

In 2019, South Dakota highway patrol troopers issued 51 citations and 56 warnings for texting while driving, and in 2020, they wrote only 26 tickets and issued 17 warnings, state data show. The fine is $178.50.

“At times it is difficult to enforce, but when we see it, we enforce it,” Miller said.

Yet state statistics related to cell-phone use in car accidents likely undercount the actual number of times a driver was distracted by a phone or something else.

“Unless a person involved in a crash admits to using their cell phone, it is sometimes difficult to know that,” said Tony Mangan, spokesman for the South Dakota Department of Public Safety.

Distracted driving was a contributing factor in 78 fatal accidents in South Dakota over the past decade, with cell-phone use directly connected to 13 of those deaths.

In fiscal 2020, seven of the 132 fatal crashes in South Dakota, about 4.8% of the total, were tied to distracted driving. In fiscal 2019, distracted driving was a factor in only three fatal crashes, about 3.4% of the total that year.

Alcohol use, the easiest factor to confirm, had the highest rate of contribution to fatal accidents in 2020.

The city of Sioux Falls has an ordinance banning the composition, reading or sending of text messages while driving or in traffic, according to Sam Clemens, public information officer for the Sioux Falls Police Department.

Clemens said some people have tried to continue using their phones but in a way that makes it harder for officers to see.

“The law made some people hide their phones, putting it on their lap rather than holding it by the steering wheel,” Clemens said.

Still, the city has issued 457 tickets to drivers violating the local texting ban and another 24 tickets for violation of the state cell-phone law since 2013, according to police department data.

Some phone uses, such as making a call, speaking on the phone or using it in an emergency, remain legal, Clements said, adding to the difficulty officers face in making a judgment about potential violations.

Officers cannot just take the person’s phone and examine it without probable cause or a warrant, Clemens said.

“It’s somebody’s personal property,” he said. “You have to see somebody on that phone, and there has to be something other than making a call, so it’s a hard law to enforce.”

Even with that targeted enforcement, officers wrote a limited number of tickets, Clemens said.

“It was time intensive and manpower intensive to do that, and I don’t know if it made much of a difference,” he said.

Derek Mann is a crash-reconstruction expert for the Rapid City Police Department who spent several years as a state highway patrol trooper and accident expert.

Mann said distracted driving remains common and can easily be seen on the roads and especially at the scene of accidents caused by distracted driving.

“I see people on their phones all the time because it’s my work environment, so it’s what I look for,” he said. “I see distracted driving all the time here in Rapid City, especially on rear-end collisions.”

Mann said he understands the temptation to use a cell phone while driving, especially in some areas of South Dakota where travel times are long and highways are flat and straight.

“It’s tempting to look at your phone when you’re out on the interstate by Presho and there’s nothing to look at but fields,” he said.

Mann said that teens and young adults may find it harder than most to spend time behind the wheel and not use their cell phones, which are actually small computers that can serve many functions beyond talking.

According to an AAA survey in South Dakota in 2019, drivers aged 19 to 24 are six times as likely as all drivers to read a text message or email and twice as likely as all drivers to compose or send a test message or email behind the wheel.

“Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, all the different social media, let alone the text-messaging, they’re so interconnected with their cell phones that it becomes part of them,” he said.

Mann, who has two adult children, said he is amazed at how quickly young people can type a text message. But even the fastest text-message typist cannot do it safely behind the wheel, he said.

“They can do it while they’re driving and it might be three seconds, but in that three seconds at 75 mph, you’re running 90 feet a second, so things come up on you fast,” he said.

Mann said drivers should make wise decisions about cell-phone use before they cause an accident that changes their life or the lives of others forever.

“It just takes a second and the next thing you know you’re in a bad crash or something even worse,” he said. “The worst part of this job, and I’ve done it for years, there’s nothing worse for an officer to knock on the door and tell a loved one that someone has died in a crash. In their lives and in our lives, I will always be that guy who told them their son or daughter or husband or wife died in a crash.”

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