The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 23, 2013

Joplin event brings attention to dangers of driving while distracted

By Andra Bryan Stefanoni

JOPLIN, Mo. — A sentence the length of this one takes about four seconds to read on a hand-held device.

In that amount of time, an automobile moving at 55 mph travels the length of a football field — including the end zones. That’s more than 300 feet.

It’s the thought of what could happen when the two take place simultaneously that brought tears to the eyes of Lamar resident Tiffany Hayworth and worry to the forefront of her mind.

“I constantly tell my (teenage) son that everything relates to choices both on and off the road,” she said. “All it takes is a split second and it’s over.”

Hayworth on Tuesday had just watched “Gone Too Soon,” a video released this month by the Missouri State Highway Patrol to get the attention of teens as well as adults who may be distracted while driving. The video includes graphic images from Missouri crashes, such as decapitated drivers and bodies with missing limbs.

“It is very difficult to watch in some areas,” said Sgt. Mike Watson of the Highway Patrol, “but it’s all real.”

The video was presented at Con-way Truckload’s Joplin headquarters as part of the National Safety Council’s Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

A number of efforts are taking place around the country to discourage the use of cellphones and other devices, and to encourage drivers to keep their focus on the road. Groups are using texting-while-driving simulators, like the one AT&T recently brought to Joplin as part of its “It Can Wait” campaign.

And in Colorado, police and family members of Alexander Heit released his final text message as a graphic warning to others.

Heit’s final text cut off in mid-sentence. Before he could send it, police say, the 22-year-old University of Northern Colorado student drifted into oncoming traffic, jerked the steering wheel and went off the road, rolling his car. He died shortly after the April 3 crash.

The text shows that Heit was responding to a friend by typing “Sounds good my man, seeya soon, ill tw” before he crashed.

Con-way’s senior director of human resources, Bert Johnson, said the company’s goal with the local effort is to continually educate and inform drivers in order to prevent future tragedies. More than 40,000 traffic accidents in the state each year are attributed to inattentive or distracted drivers, according to the state patrol’s Watson.

“Each year, law enforcement in the state of Missouri investigates over 140,000 traffic crashes on Missouri roads,” Watson said. “About 30 percent of those are attributed to someone not paying attention.

“Whether they lose focus because they are using their cellphone, eating, talking to someone else in the car, putting on makeup, whether they’re shaving — it’s something that takes their eyes off the roadway. Inattentive driving or not paying attention is the leading cause of all traffic crashes in the state of Missouri.”

Hayworth, who commutes each weekday from Lamar to her job at Con-way, saw firsthand last fall on U.S. Highway 71 what distracted driving can do.

“I have used Star-55 to report distracted driving numerous times,” she said. “I want to come home to my family. One day, the person I was reporting had an accident right in front of me as I was reporting him.”

That driver hit a tractor-trailer in the oncoming lane nearly head-on, Hayworth said.

Is that call Worth it?

Driver inattention is particularly troubling to long-haul trucker David May, who was at Tuesday’s event.

Trucking is vital to the American economy, he said, because more than 80 percent of what the public consumes is transported on trucks.

He also knows that cars are no match for his 70-foot-long 18-wheeler, which weighs 80,000 pounds when fully loaded.

And it takes more than 500 feet of roadway for May to stop to avoid an inattentive driver who has swerved into his path — and more if his truck isn’t loaded or if it’s raining, because there is less friction between his tires and the road.

May and Diamond resident Stephanie Klang have been named captains on America’s Road Team by the American Trucking Association, which also was represented at Tuesday’s event. The two have a combined 63 years of experience driving trucks and more than 4.3 million accident-free miles between them.

Both made a personal appeal to the public at Tuesday’s event to keep the focus on the road, and not on the cellphone.

“Ask yourself: Is that call worth your life or someone else’s life?” Klang said. “Drivers who text are 23 times more likely to cause a crash.”

Seat belts

SGT. MIKE WATSON of the Missouri State Highway Patrol said 826 people lost their lives in traffic crashes last year in Missouri. He said two of every three drivers who died in crashes were not wearing seat belts.