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Keep your hands on the wheel
(Photos courtesy: Stop the Texts Facebook)

By James Mejia

If you are driving Colorado highways on a Wednesday, you might notice a new Colorado Department of Transportation messaging campaign. Called the ‘Wednesday Memorial,’ every week electronic billboards will be updated with the number of traffic fatalities along with a message like, “Drive now, text later.”

CDOT and the Colorado State Patrol recently collaborated in enforcing National Distracted Driving Awareness Month in April, publicizing the need to increase driver safety and eliminate a major cause of auto related deaths around the state. With resources available for employers and a social media kit, the National Safety Council has promoted the hashtag #TakeBackYourDrive to promote the national conversation.

CDOT is also preparing for the month of July when they will roll out a new prevention campaign called ‘Drop the Distraction.’ Past campaigns have included messaging in Spanish with quips like, “La Mirada en el camino. No en tu telefono. – Keep your eyes on the road, not on your telephone.” And “Quítate la venda y maneja sin distracciones. – Take off the blindfold and drive without distractions.”

Leading up to the summer month of focus on preventing distracted driving, CDOT has begun enforcement in earnest. Statewide exaction began in April, and in Denver, a focused effort began in early June.

According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, anything taking a driver’s attention away from the road is considered ‘Distracted Driving.’ Putting on makeup, eating and shaving join cell phone use as some of the biggest contributors to the problem. From the historically high distracted driving fatality toll in 2013 with 79, safety officials saw reasons for optimism when 2014 deaths decreased to 73 and 2015 dropped to 59 fatalities. The optimism stopped there, however. Thus far in 2016, 69 drivers have been killed due to distracted driving, a double digit increase from 2015, and the year isn’t even halfway over. Distracted driving accounted for 11 percent of traffic deaths in 2014 and 13 percent of nearly 550 traffic fatalities in 2015.

Parents and the Colorado legislature were concerned enough about distracted teen drivers that legislation was enacted to prohibit drivers under the age of 18 from using mobile phones while driving. After all, the American Automobile Association (AAA) reports that 60 percent of teen car crashes are due to distracted driving. However, statistics show that distracted driving is a problem among all age groups. Thirty-seven percent of all distracted driving accidents were caused by residents aged 21-34. For the last three years, the group with the second most distracted driving crashes were adults between the ages of 31 and 40. Over half of all the Colorado crashes occurred in just four Colorado counties – Denver, Jefferson, Adams and Arapahoe.

Enforcement of Illegal Mobile Phone Use

Using a mobile phone while driving in Colorado is not illegal, but is strongly discouraged by law enforcement. The exception is for novice drivers – those under 18 years of age are prohibited from using cell phones while driving. For all drivers, messaging while driving in Colorado is illegal. Both measures were put into effect in December 2009 after House Bill 1094 was signed by Governor, Bill Ritter.

For the first offense, a $50 fine will be levied. For a second offense, the fine will be doubled. Illegal use of mobile phones while driving are ‘primary’ offenses – meaning law enforcement officers have the authority to stop your vehicle for this violation alone.

Though the definition of distracted driving is much broader than just cell phone use, the use of phones has been the primary target of state legislatures to improve traffic safety. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that a ban on text messaging is in effect in 46 states, novice drivers are not allowed to use mobile phones in 37 states and all mobile phone use is banned in 13 states.

In 2014, the Colorado legislature rejected a measure to further limit the use of mobile phones. For some, the measure didn’t go far enough. For others, like House sponsor Jovan Melton, the issue needs to be revisited to improve traffic safety. If you call Melton’s cell phone and get his voice mail, you will see how seriously he takes the issue, “This is State Representative Jovan Melton. I am either driving or away from my phone right now…” He makes it a point not to talk on the phone while driving and wants to make all mobile phone use – including hands free talking - illegal for all Coloradans.

He has plans to bring the issue back for discussion in the Colorado State Legislature, possibly as soon as the 2017 session. He acknowledges the concerns of those who cite additional government intrusion but maintains that, “Those are old arguments. The same people against limiting cell phone use while driving are those that argued against using seat belts and child seats in vehicles. We implemented those laws successfully and the laws have improved traffic safety.”

Melton reminds that the 2009 legislation passed by then State Representative Claire Levy was a compromise bill that originally banned all mobile phone use while driving. At the time, Levy called it a good first step that created awareness of safety concerns for Coloradans. Melton would like to pick up the legislation where Levy left off.
If he can successfully propose language that further limits phone use while recognizing the need for applications used by Uber drivers, who constantly use mapping applications and Tesla drivers reliant on mobile applications, Melton believes he will be heading the right direction to further improve vehicle safety on Colorado roads. “In 2015 we put in place a practical solution that allowed people to use ear pieces for phone use while driving, next year I hope to put into place another practical solution with the right language and the right stakeholders around the table.” Melton acknowledges the neutral role adopted by cell phone companies that recognize the move toward phone limiting legislation in some of the country’s biggest states including California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois. All told, 13 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico already have ‘no cell phone use while driving’ laws in place. “This legislation will be about getting people to put their phones down. This is about public safety.”





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