Deaths due to distracted drivers on the rise, UNMC study finds -
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Deaths due to distracted drivers on the rise, UNMC study finds

Jara Sturdivant-Wilson stares down motorists each morning as she walks across the street on her way to her Omaha bus stop near Children's and Methodist Hospitals.

She says that drivers usually aren't looking in her direction, that many are texting at the wheel. But she hopes to draw their attention just long enough to avoid being hit.

Sturdivant-Wilson has cause to be leery.

According to a national study by the University of Nebraska Medical Center, pedestrian and bicyclist deaths by distracted drivers are on the rise. Bicycle deaths were up 30percent and pedestrian deaths were up 45 percent over the five years studied, 2005 to 2010. The increase is contrary to a decline in motor vehicle deaths.

“Drivers are often staring down at their phones and completely miss that there is someone trying to cross the street,” Sturdivant-Wilson said. “I hate it!”

The number of pedestrians killed nationally by distracted drivers rose to 500 in 2010, up from 344 in 2005. Fatal bicycle crashes caused by distracted drivers rose to 73, up from 56 in 2005.

Most of the victims were white men between the ages of 25 and 64. About half the deaths occurred during daytime hours, the UNMC study found, and the pedestrians typically were outside of a marked crosswalk.

The study included only those fatal crashes in which investigators could prove that the drivers were distracted. The causes ranged from texting to eating.

The peer-reviewed report was published in the November-December issue of Public Health Reports. It didn't break out the numbers by state.

In Nebraska, the number of pedestrians and cyclists killed by motorists has remained fairly steady in recent years: Each year, about eight to 10 pedestrians and one or two cyclists are killed. Those numbers are for all deaths and do not separate out cases of driver distraction.

The number of injuries to Nebraska's pedestrians and cyclists far outweighs the deaths, at between 600 and 800 per year.

Iowa figures were not immediately available.

Texting while driving is illegal in Nebraska and Iowa, but it's a secondary offense. That means an officer can issue a ticket for texting only if a driver has been pulled over for another reason, such as speeding.

It doesn't take another offense, however, to make texting dangerous, Omaha Police Sgt. Jason Menning said: “If you are looking down, texting, you don't see the situation until it's too late, and we're getting all these injuries.”

Distracted drivers are a problem in Nebraska, based on the most recent year that statistics are available, 2011. According to Fred Zwonechek, administrator of the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety, the state recorded:

89 convictions for texting behind the wheel

3,500 “distracted driving” crashes

1,200 injuries in those distracted driving crashes

Six deaths in the distracted driving crashes

Talking on the phone while driving is legal in Nebraska, provided that the driver is over 18. Still, it's a bad idea, safety officials said.

“You're taking away from what you're supposed to be doing, which is focusing on driving,” Menning said.

Dr. Fernando Wilson, an associate professor in UNMC's College of Public Health, said despite laws prohibiting them, texting and driving is commonplace.

“The problem is not going away any time soon,” Wilson said. “You need to be cognizant.”

Wilson said it's possible that novel solutions may be needed — beyond banning texting while driving. It may be that roadway changes are needed to better protect pedestrians and bicyclists.

Zwonechek said law enforcement officers increasingly are trained to ask the question: Were you texting while driving?

But drivers are reluctant to admit it, he said.

“It's much like falling asleep behind the wheel. It's way underreported.”

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