States moving to penalize distracted drivers more, even though the cost is already too great

February 22, 2019

Casey Feldman planned the summer between her junior and senior years at Fordham University on the New Jersey shore, working the last “non-aggravation” job she wanted as a young adult.

The aspiring reporter racked up internships at newspapers, bylines at local papers and Philadelphia Style magazine. She was her school newspaper’s news editor as a junior, more responsibility at the paper during her senior year was surely coming. For the summer, she was content working a waitress on the Ocean City boardwalk.

Casey walked toward Bob’s Grill around 5 p.m. to begin her shift on July 17, 2009. As the 21-year-old neared the restaurant at East 14th Avenue and Boardwalk and Ocean City, she was struck by a delivery van driven by 59-year-old Anthony Lomonaco as she crossed Central Avenue.

Witnesses said the van didn’t slow at all until Casey was under the front wheels.

Casey Feldman

Casey Feldman

Two hours away in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Casey’s father Joel Feldman picked up the phone.

“My wife called me, and she said: ‘I got word that Casey was in a crash.’” Joel said. “We said, ‘Oh, thank God she's driving an SUV.’”

The attorney initially thought that his daughter’s SUV would have been safe in any crash, but thought it was unusual that a New Jersey state trooper drove him to the Atlantic City hospital, an hour away, instead of letting him drive on his own. An hour passed before Joel began to wonder.

READ NEXT: Study: Texting while driving most common during evening rush hour

“I said to him, ‘My gosh, I wonder how badly injured my daughter is. Is my daughter going to die?’”

When he arrived at the hospital, the faces of the surgeons told him all he needed to know about injuries.

“And then Casey was dead.”


New York Governor Andrew Cuomo unveils

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo unveils

Forty-seven states have laws that ban texting and driving in some way. Now, many states are going further with stiffer penalties for repeat offenders, sentencing enhancers, or outright bans on all handheld phone use in a moving car.

Federal safety officials say 3,450 people were killed in distracted driving crashes in 2016, the most recent year with available data. Nearly 400,000 people were injured in distracted driving-related crashes in 2015. According to the CDC, 10,497 people were killed in drunk driving-related crashes.

Despite the increasing deaths due to distracted drivers, the average penalty in many states for drivers caught distracted behind the wheel is only $200. Many estimates say that convicted drunk drivers may pay upward of $10,000 for their infractions.

At least 17 state Legislatures have bills this year that would increase penalties for cellphone use behind the wheel. More may be coming as legislators add late-term bills to their dockets. Nearly half of the states, 23, are considering handheld bans to join the 16 states that have already outlawed phones in drivers’ hands.

Among them, Colorado’s proposed legislation this year would fine drivers $300 for the first offense, $500 for the second offense, and $750 for the third offense. A proposal in Vermont would fine drivers at least $500, more if the violation happened in a school or work zone. South Carolina will call the offenses “DUI-E,” a signal of the severity of the infraction.

“Research has continued to show that distracted driving is an ongoing problem, though it is changing,” said Russ Martin, director of policy and government relations for the Governor’s Highway Safety Administration. “Smartphone features have evolved so much from what was available during the ‘flip phone era’ and it’s no surprise that motorists are more tempted to use them while driving.”

Martin points to states like Georgia, which last year banned handheld phones, and Virginia, which just passed a bill to do the same—“a development a decade in the making,” Martin said.

Jacob Smith hospitalized

Jacob Smith hospitalized

“Being killed in a car crash isn’t the worst thing that can happen,” said Jacob Smith.

On April 12, 2014, Jacob was returning from a youth leadership conference near Corpus Christi, Texas, when the car he was traveling in was struck head-on by a distracted driver.

Jacob has no recollection of the crash but said that the damage is lasting. Once an honors student, Jacob had to teach himself how to talk again.

“I’ll never be able to drive…the doctors said I had the academic level of a fourth-grader,” he said.

Jacob’s crash left him hospitalized for months. The impact killed the driver of the car that hit Jacob’s three weeks later. Jacob said the woman had been cited for distracted driving before.

After high school, Jacob moved to Washington D.C., in part, because of the city’s public transportation system and also because he’s used his experience to speak to others about his ordeal.

“The real effect is the lasting effect that it has on people like me who have a traumatic brain injury and then also those who've had to suffer with me from the crash,” he said. “I feel like I have a huge part of my life that's missing because I don't remember the crash… A lot of my childhood I do not remember because of the crash.”


ZF's distracted driver technology

ZF's distracted driver technology

Federal regulators estimate that during the daylight hours, about 660,000 people are using cellphones or handheld electronic devices in the U.S. at any moment.

South Carolina Rep. Bill Taylor’s district is 30 minutes from Augusta, Georgia and, at the southern tip, runs along the two states’ border.

Last year, Georgia became the 16th state to outlaw handheld devices for drivers, and Bill knew that South Carolina should do the same.

“I’m a Republican, and a liberty-loving Republican at that...but public safety is a No. 1 priority,” Bill said. “We know we need to put the phone down.”

South Carolina has half as many people as Georgia, but more road deaths per capita each year. In 2017, more than 1,500 people died on Georgia’s roads, according to the National Safety Council; South Carolina had 1,014 road fatalities.

“It’s real simple for me,” Taylor said. “I’m 72 and have children, and grandchildren...we need to be safer.”

This year, Taylor introduced to the South Carolina Legislature his bill to curb distracted driving, which he titled the “DUI-E” bill. The proposal would fine drivers $200, paid as a civil fine instead of a criminal penalty, for each infraction. The name of his bill was meant to raise eyebrows—and awareness for the issue.

“I’ve run with this for more than a year now, I’ve got editorials written about it...I wanted to make it understood that it’s as a bad or worse as DUI,” he said. “Driving blind is worse than driving impaired, to me.”

Taylor concedes that the bill’s name may eventually be amended to reduce confusion between a criminal DUI charge and his civil DUI-E penalties, but he said the message should be clear to drivers that driving distracted is potentially fatal.

“I can see the finish line, I’m not going to get in the way of my own bill,” he said.

Using data from states that have already banned handheld phones, Taylor estimates that a similar ban in South Carolina could save as many as 175 lives each year.  

“Put the phone down,” he said, “and drive.”


Distracted driving

Distracted driving

Denver Police Lt. Robert Rock has been an officer for nearly 30 years, most recently as head of traffic investigations for the city. Distracted driving isn’t always easy to prove, but it’s not hard to spot.

“That is a challenge for all law enforcement...we know that there’s a lot distracted driving with people using cellphones,” he said.

In some serious crashes, there may be no clear reason—glare, intoxication, no visible danger—but a cellphone in the footwell or cupholder may be a clue.

“The last question, in that case, is: ‘What were you doing with your phone?’” he said.

Distracted driving is on the rise, he said. Smartphones are easier to use and more integral to our lives, he said. It’s not just handheld use, either.

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“I think a lot of folks are under pressure to answer emails, and there’s something about text messages that people feel like they just have to read them now,” he said. “I don’t think people consider the consequences of taking their eyes off the road, for just a few seconds.”

Rock tells others about the chainsaw he uses to harvest firewood at home. When he cuts timber to split logs for heat, his eyes never leave the oiled, spinning chain until he’s done cutting wood. Drivers don’t make the connection to chainsaws and cars, but he does.

“When you get in (your car), you’re not driving a chainsaw. But that (car) has the ability to kill and maim. We’ve made cars so comfortable now—we’ve made them very soundproof and its an extension of our home now...we fail to realize that we operate a dangerous machine.”

Jacob Smith's crash

Jacob Smith's crash

States can penalize drivers who flout the law but laws may not be enough.

Joel Feldman lost his daughter but said it took two months after her fatal crash that he realized that he drove distracted too. He now speaks at schools across the country about his family's ordeal, and has created a foundation in Casey's name.

“I changed the way I drive because my daughter was killed…(but) it shouldn't have to take a tragedy for all of us to change the way we drive. And so many of us are driving distracted.”

Jacob’s life now includes telling lawmakers that laws aren’t enough. Legislation without education is ineffective, which he tells others.

Jacob Smith and Michelle Obama

Jacob Smith and Michelle Obama

“I think my biggest goal is just letting everyone know that every decision you make on the road has a positive or negative effect on you and others,” he said.

Bill Taylor said the appetite for change is now, and people who’ve been impacted by distracted driving are leading the charge.

“The people are ahead of the legislators, in this one. They understand the problem and are willing to do something about it.”

Rock said that as distracted driving crashes increase, more people have more personal stories.

“For a lot of folks...they think ‘this will never happen to me,” he said.’ “A lot of the victims of our crashes, they got up, (on a) regular day, kissed their families goodbye...and they never came home.”

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