Distracted Driving an ‘Epidemic’ on Long Island

By Andrew Goldstein

Skyler Gilbert drove his blue 1999 Honda CR-V down the curves of Route 8 in Brant Lake, New York. The 19-year-old Stony Brook University rising junior journalism major sped about five miles per hour above the posted 55 mph speed limit on the sunny August afternoon. Dakota, his 17-year-old brother, sat beside him. While listening to “Wish You Were Here” by Incubus, they approached a tight right turn resembling a corkscrew on Graphite Mountain at 40 mph. The recommended speed for the turn was 25 mph.

“I hit the corner too fast. I drifted into the left lane,” Gilbert said. “I cranked the wheel right. When I felt I was losing control I was bringing it back to the left.”

A tractor-trailer in the left lane forced Gilbert to turn right again. The swerving caused him to lose control of the SUV. It hit the big metal guardrail and shot airborne into a rockslide of the mountain. The windows shattered. The back of the car flipped over the front. Luckily, both boys wore seat belts and the only injuries were from a couple of shards of glass that lodged in Skyler’s forehead.

“I was thinking about everything but the road,” Gilbert said.

This was the second car Gilbert totaled due to distracted driving.

In an effort to curb distracted driving, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released proposed guidelines on November 23 for smartphone manufacturers to limit apps and other functions while the person using the phone is driving. This is the second phase of voluntary guidelines to address driver distraction. The first phase focused on devices or systems built into the vehicle. The guidelines include restricting video, images, manual texting, internet usage, text displays and automatically scrolling text.

“Distracted driving is the act of driving while engaged in other activities,” a spokesperson for the NHTSA said. “Targeting the amount of device usage and the amount that the driver does not engage the road like they used to, especially among younger demographics, that kind of education is our next big step.”

Distractions encompass much more than cell phone use and texting while driving.

“It’s reaching down in a vehicle to pick something up that you dropped,” Alec Slatky, Policy and Regulatory affairs liaison for AAA Northeast, said. “It’s talking to your passenger and turning your head to look at them. Maybe you have kids in the back seat and you’re trying to make them stop crying. Maybe you have pets in the car. Distraction is kind of an all-encompassing term.”

The number of people who died in accidents in 2015 reached 35,092, according to a report by the NHTSA, making it the largest single-year increase, a 7.2 percent increase, since 1966.

“We live in a generation where the internet has killed our attention spans,” Moe Farrah, a senior computer science major at Brooklyn College, said. “They care more about their social media than they do about the road.”

On Long Island, fatalities increased from 204 in 2014 to 260 in 2015, approximately a 27 percent increase, according to a study by the AAA. Suffolk County had the most fatalities per county in the state of New York. Nassau County had the second most fatalities, according to the study.

“It’s a pretty ignominious distinction,” Slatky said. “Distracted driving is clearly at an epidemic level on Long Island, throughout the state, and around the country.”

The number of fatalities due to distracted driving increased by 8.8 percent nationwide from 2014 to 2015. In Nassau, in 2015, county and local police issued an average of 15 distracted driving tickets a day, according to another AAA study. In Suffolk, police issued an average of 21 tickets for distracted driving a day. This means a total average of 36 tickets per day were issued for the entire driving population of Long Island.

Slatky and a colleague stood at the corner of Old Country Road and Franklin Avenue in Garden City in Nassau to anecdotally study distracted driving.

“We stood on that corner for a half hour and we could have written 30 tickets easily, for either using the phone to make a call, texting, wearing two headphones,” Slatky said, “It would have been quite easy, which is, of course, very disheartening.”

Excursions like this led Slatky to conclude that better enforcement is necessary.

“We’re not really seeing enough enforcement and that’s evident in the prevalence of the behavior,” Slatky said. “You’re never going to get everyone and I don’t think we want a society where literally every single person is given a ticket for any infraction but this is a behavior that really has to be prioritized.”

When Tom Sini was voted in as the Suffolk police commissioner on Feb. 9, 2016, he made traffic safety one of the main focuses of his administration. Over the last year, the Suffolk County Police Department, which monitors Brookhaven, Babylon, Huntington, Smith Haven and Islip, has increased the number of ticket writing officers on highways. Tickets are given by marked units looking for reckless drivers, unmarked truck and SUV units that look down into other cars, and traffic checkpoints, where officers are stationed at highly trafficked intersections to check drivers.

“What a lot of folks don’t realize is that driving is actually one of the most dangerous things that we do in everyday society,” Justin Meyers, Assistant Police Commissioner of the Suffolk County Police Department, said. “You have a much greater chance of being injured or killed in a vehicle than in almost any other activity that a normal person partakes in on a daily basis.”

In 2015, the Suffolk County Police Department only issued 3,366 summonses for cellphone use and 1,596 for portable electronic devices. This totals an average of 13.6 tickets given for distracted driving daily. From the beginning of 2016 until November 23, the department has issued 3,842 summonses for cellphone use and 1,892 summonses for portable electronic devices. This totals an average of 17.6 tickets a day.

There were 111 fatal crashes, meaning an accident that caused at least one death, in the jurisdiction of the Suffolk County Police Department in 2015. In 2016, that number dropped to 81.

“Our fatalities on highways in Suffolk County is significantly down in 2016 so you can draw a direct correlation from the amount of enforcement we’ve been doing to that decline in traffic fatalities,” Meyers said.

Attempts were made to contact the Nassau Police Department for a comment. They have not responded.

Distracted driving is grouped in to three categories: manual, taking your hands off the wheel, visual, taking your eyes off the road, and cognitive, taking your mind off the road. Traffic safety initiatives are grouped into engineering, like creating apps with ‘car modes,’ education, like promotional videos and classes about distracted driving, and enforcement, like laws against phone usage and police to issue tickets.

Ninety-six percent of respondents thought texting and driving should not be permitted, and 80 percent thought that drivers should not be allowed to talk on a hand-held phone while driving, according to a survey by Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

New York was the first state to ban hand-held phone usage while driving in 2001. It banned texting in 2009. Since then, it has introduced even stricter distracted driving laws. The next step is strict enforcement.

“If you’re texting and driving I’m cool with you getting caught but the law as it is states that as long as you’re holding the phone, not using it, they can give you a ticket that’s five points,” Charles Chakkalo, junior philosophy and English major at Hunter College, said.

Proposed bill A229 would cause a person who engages in certain non-driving activities while driving to be guilty of inattentive driving. One who incurs three violations of inattentive driving during an 18-month period would be guilty of reckless driving, a misdemeanor. If convicted, a person will receive a permanent criminal record, could spend up to 30 days in jail and may have their license revoked. The bill was introduced first in 2009 and has yet to make it to the On Floor Calendar.

While cell phone usage is not the only form of distracted driving, the NHTSA hopes that such legislation will be a step in the right direction to prevent future accidents from occurring.