Drivers’ use of phones draws city’s attention

Plan would double fines if calls made during accidents

Drivers distracted by a cell phone were blamed for less than half of 1 percent of the 68,675 fatal, injury or serious property-damage accidents in 2005 on Kansas roads, according to the Kansas Department of Transportation.

Those numbers appear to be at odds with a recent national study – touted as a breakthrough by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – that criticized driver cell phone use, other distractions and drowsiness. The study blamed inattentive drivers for 80 percent of crashes.

“Of course you don’t have data for it. Without reporting procedures, you can’t know how many accidents happened,” Kansas University psychologist Paul Atchley said.

But he says the risk is definitely there and cites his own and other research that has shown humans cannot talk and listen on the phone without significantly impairing their driving ability.

Lawrence Traffic Safety Commissioners tonight will take up the issue as they consider an ordinance that, if eventually approved by city commissioners, could double a fine for drivers who talk on their cell phones while involved in an accident. Another ordinance would restrict drivers younger than 18 from using wireless devices while driving.

Documenting distractions

KDOT has only started keeping tabs on accidents involving distractions in the past three years. The reported number of accidents involving cell phones increased last year to 292 from 260 in 2004. But that number is still below the 909 accidents in 2005 that involved other distractions, like reaching for objects in the car.

Five people died last year in Kansas accidents that involved a cell phone, compared to seven deaths with other distractions, 91 alcohol-related, eight in work zones and two in deer collisions.

Last year on Kansas roads, a total of 429 people died, which was 40 fewer deaths than in 2003 and 30 less than 2004. Injuries have also decreased to 22,722 from 23,783 in 2004 and 24,798 in 2003.

“We definitely need to bring those numbers down. That’s more than one person (who dies) per day,” said Joe Blubaugh, public affairs manager for KDOT in northeast Kansas.

While KDOT has no official position on laws about cell phone use, Blubaugh says: “In general, almost every crash is preventable in some way or another. Distractions are a big, big part of that.”

Federal study

The national study conducted with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute followed 241 drivers for more than a year with video cameras and sensor devices. The drivers crashed 82 times and almost crashed 761 times, and researchers named drivers having conversations on a cell phone and drowsiness as primary causes for inattentive driving.

At KU, Atchley says with other effective studies, researchers in other countries correlated drivers’ cell phone records with an accident time – a technique restricted in the United States because of privacy issues.

But the point he says is it is currently difficult for law enforcement officers to establish cell phone use as an accident cause.

Sgt. Dan Ward, a Lawrence police spokesman, has said he has no specific study to cite but that talking on cell phones probably distracts and causes problems for drivers in Lawrence.

Bob Hagen, a traffic safety commissioner, considers it a problem, but he said he’s not sure how more enforcement at the local level will play out.

“It isn’t going to work if there’s not a lot of education,” he said.


Blubaugh says KDOT and law enforcement agencies will continue to pursue transportation safety through engineering, enforcement and education.

Cell phone usage while driving has become high-profile lately he says, but he considers it part of the overall problem of inattentive driving.

“Almost every crash is preventable, and anything to help prevent them is great,” he said. “If that’s what a municipality feels is best for the city or county, then so be it.”

Atchley says anything to address driver distraction will help.

“I don’t think there’s any safe way to use a cell phone while driving,” he said.