How many times have you pulled up to a stop light, looked over at the car next to you, and seen the driver texting, putting on make-up, stuffing his or her face or reading the newspaper?
Better yet, how many times have you seen these activities while not stopped at a light? OK, here’s the really tough question. How many times have you participated in these kind of activities?
On Nov. 1, the Mississippi Highway Patrol implemented a distracted driving awareness campaign here in Oxford entitled “Pay Attention or Pay a Fine.” Troopers in unmarked vehicles, specifically a Nissan Maxima and a Ford pickup, began cruising Highway 6 looking for the eaters, groomers, and, yes, texters.
One week into the campaign, MHP Director of Public Affairs Johnny Poulos said not only was the campaign successful, but there were a lot of appreciative people who were pulled over.
“They’d say ‘I didn’t even realize I was doing that'”, Poulos said. “That’s the whole point of the campaign: to educate the public to keep our roads safe.”
Poulos made it clear this is not a ticket-writing campaign or an under-cover mission. The troopers are not specifically targeting texting drivers either. Currently the laws in Mississippi pertain to the actions of the vehicles, not of the driver. He said if an officer observes a vehicle swerving into other lanes, running off the road, or appears to be driving without concern for its surroundings, the officer is obligated to make the stop, regardless of the campaign.
“When we have to go knock on the door of a loved one killed on the roadway, it doesn’t matter if it was a drunk driver or a distracted driver who caused the accident,” Poulos said. “We want to educate the public on how dangerous distracted driving can be.”
Currently in Mississippi, the laws pertaining to distracted driving state that bus drivers cannot use cell phones (hands-free or not), or text. The laws also prohibit “novice drivers” from texting while driving. The National Conference of State Legislators defines novice drivers as learners’ permit holders and those with an intermediate license. However, there are no laws prohibiting cell phone use of any kind for the common driver.
Since Mississippi has no specific distracted driving laws for non-bus driving, non-novice drivers, the results of the stops made in Oxford during the campaign will fall under either reckless or careless driving.
A careless driving offense is considered significantly less serious than reckless driving and carries a fine of $5 to $50. An initial reckless driving ticket results in a fine ranging from $50 to $100, but subsequent tickets could carry a much higher fine or a 10-day reservation at the county jail.
When asked why Oxford was chosen to roll out the awareness campaign, Poulos simply stated MHP arbitrarily chose Oxford as the starting point because it was at the top of the state.
“We want every driver in Mississippi to be aware of the consequences and dangers of distracted driving,” Poulos said. “Oxford seemed as good a place as any to start as we expand to the rest of the state.”
Distraction.gov, the Official U.S. Government Site for Distracted Driving, collects information from a large number of sources on the dangers of distracted driving.
For example, according to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, participating in “visual-manual subtasks” while driving (i.e. texting, dialing, etc.) increases the risk of a crash by three times. VTTI also states that the time it takes to read or send a text message, about 4.6 seconds, is the same as driving the length of a football field at 55 mph, blind.
The National Occupant Protection Use Survey found that at any given daylight moment in America there are 660,000 distracted drivers using an electronic device, such as cell phones, GPS navigators, or even the radio.
The “Pay Attention or Pay a Fine” campaign started in Oxford on Friday, November 1 and MHP plans to expand the campaign to the entire state soon. They are currently in the process of choosing the next location, based mainly on the number of troopers available in the area.
If nothing else, treat every other driver on the road as a potential MHP trooper, put down the sandwich, the mascara can wait, and be safe out there, Oxford.
Kate Sinervo is an associate editor with HottyToddy.com