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Cellphones aren't the only thing distracting Utah drivers on the road

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By SHEILA WANG • Standard-Examiner staff

Distracted driving has taken more lives on Utah roads in the past 10 years, data shows.

From 2007 to 2016, 221 people lost their lives to road crashes involving distracted drivers, accounting for nine percent of Utah’s overall traffic deaths, according to the Utah Department of Public Safety (DPS).

The deaths tolls related to distracted driving have grown over the years as the red column chart shows. In 2016 alone, distracted driving claimed 27 lives in the state.

Overall crashes involving distracted driving have increased in the past 10 years as well. Some 5,700 crashes that occurred in Utah were related to distracted drivers in 2016.

There might be more distracted crashes than what has been reported, according to Gary Mower with the Utah Department of Public Safety. “Sometimes it was hard for the officers to tell if they were distracted.”

Meanwhile, fatal distracted road crashes had a similar growing trend, despite fluctuations from year to year, as the line chart shows.

Among all types of distractions, cellphones were the second leading driver distraction in 2016. Fifteen percent of the 5,700 distraction-related crashes involved cellphone use.

A bill that is intended to ban hand-held cellphone use while driving is under consideration in Utah.

Democratic Rep. Carol Spackman-Moss of Salt Lake City devised the proposal, hoping to reduce crashes caused by distracted driving.

Fourteen states already have hands-free laws in place.

Related: New bill would ban phone calls while driving, unless with hands-free devices

However, those laws have produced little effect, according to research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

“Surprisingly, our research has not found a reduction in crashes after states have banned hand-held cellphone use,” said Russ Rader with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Drivers, when not using cellphones, could still do a lot of other distracting things, he added.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines distracted driving as "any activity that could divert attention from the primary task of driving."

“Distractions are definitely not limited to cellphone use in the vehicle,” John Gleason, a public information officer for the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), “but it’s what we see the most out and about.”

There are many other distractions that have not received as much attention as cellphones, Gleason said.

A majority of Utah's distracted crashes were attributed to “other” causes in 2016, which means the drivers were distracted by anything except common distractions in or outside the car, like daydreaming.

When it comes to the fatal crashes involving distracted drivers, “other” distractions were also the leading cause. And distractions such as passengers, “other inside” and “other external,” have resulted in more deaths than cellphone use in 2016.

“Other inside,” the second biggest distraction which claimed seven lives in 2016, means anything inside the car except cellphones, passengers, or electronic devices. It could be “eating, drinking, grooming or animals in the car,” Mower said.

Not everyone drinks alcohol, and not everyone uses drugs, but no one is immune to distractions, said Gleason.

Data also shows distractions seem to be more tempting to younger drivers than older ones.

Over the past seven years, drivers aged 15-29 had the highest number of distracted drivers in fatal crashes in Utah, a 2010-2016 analysis shows.

Drivers in this age group also accounted for almost half of all distracted crashes in that period of time.

The general trend reveals that the older the driver is, the less likely he or she would be distracted while driving.

Contact Reporter Sheila Wang at 801-625-4252 or Follow her on Facebook @JournalistSheilaW or on Twitter @SheilaWang7.

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