Distracted driving remains a hard habit to break in South Dakota

LEFT: Emergency workers examine a November 2021 multi-car accident in Lincoln County that was caused by fog and driver distraction. RIGHT: South Dakota Department of Public Safety Secretary Craig Price stands astride a sculpture made of 250 cellphones aimed at reminding drivers of the dangers of distracted driving. The sculpture will be inside the Empire Mall in Sioux Falls for several months. (Left: Photo courtesy of South Dakota Highway Patrol/Right: Photo courtesy of Department of Public Safety

South Dakota lawmaker Doug Barthel, a former police chief in Sioux Falls, tried to make state roadways safer from distracted drivers by spearheading passage of a law in 2020 to restrict cellphone use behind the wheel.

The South Dakota law allows cellphone use in a vehicle, but only for phone calls or to look up a phone number, and allows drivers to hold the phone to their ear. The law made it illegal to use a phone for texting, taking photos, watching videos or accessing the internet except in an emergency, and made the infraction a primary offense for which officers can pull over and ticket a driver.

Barthel hopes the law has prevented distracted driving in some cases, but he acknowledges that drivers in South Dakota and across the country continue to engage in risky behaviors behind the wheel that lead to thousands of deaths and injuries each year.

“I just hope there’s some people who got the message and it’s having an impact on them, but to be honest, the majority of people probably ignore the law and still use their phone in the car how and when they want to,” said Barthel, R-Sioux Falls.

In South Dakota, 250 people were killed or injured in car accidents attributed to distracted driving in 2021, according to the state Department of Public Safety, though experts acknowledge the number is probably much higher due to difficulty in proving distracted driving after an accident has taken place.

Distracted driving was listed as a contributing cause of accidents in South Dakota in 2020 at a higher rate than speeding, disregarding a traffic signal, improper passing, over-correcting, and swerving to avoid an object, according to state crash data. Among teen drivers, 58% of those involved in an accident were distracted at the time of the crash, the state DPS said.

Distracted driving, which includes cellphone use but also eating, talking with others or adjusting vehicle controls, remains a highly risky behavior. Across the U.S., fatal crashes involving a distracted driver rose by 12% from 2019 to 2020, the last year for which data is available. Among all highway deaths that year, distracted drivers were known to be involved in 8% of fatal wrecks (3,143 people killed) and in 14% of injury accidents (324,600 people injured). About 600 pedestrians were also killed by distracted drivers that year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Talking on the phone while driving can be distracting, but texting while driving is significantly more dangerous and makes a crash 23 times more likely, experts say. With the time needed to read or send a text estimated at five seconds, a driver at 55 mph would be distracted for 405 feet of vehicle travel, more than a football field. At 80 mph, the interstate speed limit in much of South Dakota, the texting driver would be distracted for 585 feet, nearly the length of two football fields.

South Dakota Highway Patrol officers have increased enforcement of distracted diving laws in recent years, according to state data.

From 2015 through 2022, state troopers have issued a total of 1,218 citations or warnings to drivers for distracted driving infractions (527 citations and 691 warnings.) Yet the data show that citations and warnings have climbed in the past two years compared to the six years prior, with 46% of the warnings and citations coming in just the past two years.

Enforcement a challenge

For law enforcement officials, one of the challenges is trying to find a balance between educating the public about the dangers of distracted driving and cracking down with tickets and fines to create a deterrent.

The Watertown Police Department has used targeted social media campaigns to let people know that officers will be out looking for distracted drivers on certain dates and times, much like sobriety checkpoints. During a recent campaign, they focused on issuing warnings the first week and then started writing tickets the following week. The fine is $122.50.

“Word spreads fast, and it’s a bit of a deterrent,” said Capt. Steve Rehorst, a 20-year veteran of the Watertown department. “If we can change people’s behavior for one day or one weekend, maybe that change carries over beyond that point.”

Rehorst noted that student drivers are of particular concern, according to research by the NHTSA, which found in 2019 that 39% of high school students who drove in the previous 30 days texted or emailed while driving on at least one of those days.

“Statistically they spend more time on their phone, and it might be something they’re tempted to do while driving,” said Rehorst, adding that “Don’t Text and Drive” roadway signs are posted near Watertown’s high schools and Lake Area Community College.

The challenge for patrol officers is that catching a driver in the act of texting or checking social media on a phone is difficult.

“When you’re in a black-and-white patrol car that’s clearly marked, they’ll put their phone down because they can see you coming,” said Derek Mann, a former South Dakota Highway Patrol officer who now works as a crash investigator for the Rapid City Police Department. “When I was a motorcycle trooper, though, I could pull alongside people and look right in there and they’d be looking at their phone and then put it in the center console when they saw I was looking.”

Mann mentioned cellphone use when driving on the interstate as a particular concern because of the high rate of speed. “Crash investigation data has shown that it takes 1.6 seconds for your brain to sense something and the message to go to your foot to start braking,” he said. “So let’s say you’re moving 100 feet per second on the interstate, that translates to nearly 200 feet before you even start to brake. If you’re looking down at your phone at a text message or Facebook, it becomes a major problem. Driving needs to be a full-time situation.”

Mann anticipates that South Dakota will at some point move toward banning hand-held devices for all drivers anytime they are behind the wheel, as 24 other states have done, according to the National Conference of State Legislators (Minnesota is the only neighboring state with a hands-free cellphone law).

He also pointed to cellphone blocking apps that prevent drivers from making or accepting calls, texting, or accessing the internet while behind the wheel.

“That’s probably the next step in the evolution of cell phones and enforcement,” Mann said.

Barthel said cellphones have become so ubiquitous that it may be impossible to stop people from using them while driving.

“They believe they have good reaction time, and they’ve never had an issue,” he said, “but they’re just playing with fire if they’ve got their head down looking at their phone while driving. Heaven forbid, they will drift into your lane and hit you head on.”

Barthel said he has seen no data that shows if the 2020 law has had an impact on driver behavior or safety. But he’s hopeful he made a small difference in roadway safety and in protecting lives and property.

“The goal was not to write a pile of tickets, because it’s easier said than done to show what somebody was doing on their phone when you pull them over,” Barthel said. “But if people know something is against the law, they’re more inclined to be more aware of it and to not openly break the law.”

Barthel said he was long aware of the dangers of distracted driving, but became fully engaged in pushing the phone law after hearing from the father of Jacob William Dahl, a 19-year-old man from Castlewood who died in 2014 after crashing into the back of a stopped truck. Dahl was looking at his phone and had his cruise control set while driving. He apparently never looked up or braked before striking the truck. The impact killed him instantly.

Barthel did not run for re-election and is leaving the Legislature, and he’s unsure if any other lawmaker will try to bring forward a bill that he believes could have the greatest safety impact – a stricter distracted-driving law that would allow only hands-free use of phones.

Barthel said that in a rural state with wide-open spaces, the public and other lawmakers are unlikely to support stricter cellphone rules for motorists at this time.

“Everybody has a cellphone anymore and they’ve become a big part of our lives, so to ask people to totally give that up while in a car is easier said than done,” Barthel said. “Given what it took to get this law passed, I’m not sure the state is ready for a ban on cellphones in the car or even a hands-free law.”

— This article was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit journalism organization located online at SDNewsWatch.

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