National Distracted Driving Month brings strong reminder to drive safe

Raga Justin

With one hand placed on the steering wheel and her Hyundai slowed to almost a crawl, Abigail Horne figured she would be OK shooting off a quick text to a friend as she approached a nearly deserted four-way stop in her hometown last year. 

But as Horne, a Plan II and studio art freshman, made a left, still shifting glances from the road down to her phone, a car came straight and T-boned her from the driver’s side. Briefly knocked unconscious, she careened through six lanes of traffic. When her vision returned, she found herself hovering over a roadside ditch, driver’s door mangled and airbags inflated. Her phone was in the passenger’s seat, her text typed out and waiting to be sent. 

Horne, among many others, is using this April to caution others against distracted driving in honor of National Distracted Driving Month.

“I thought I could do two things at once, and the truth is, I can’t,” Horne said. “No one can. There are so many consequences for anyone who texts and drives. … I kept imagining, ‘What if I’d killed someone?’”

Brad Wheelis, Texas Department of Transportation public information officer, said distracted driving crashes and fatalities have the highest rates among drivers aged 16 to 24. To combat those numbers, the department launched its “Heads Up, Texas” campaign at UT last week, using virtual reality outside of Gregory Gymnasium to simulate the danger of distractions on the road. 

Distracted driving is anything that diverts attention away from traveling, such as eating, fiddling with the radio and even navigation. Teenagers and young adults are more likely to drive distracted, Wheelis said. 

“Younger people are more apt to be dialed into their smartphones or in the car with friends, plus they have less experience behind the wheel,” Wheelis said. 

Wheelis said more than 100,000 crashes statewide last year involved distracted driving and resulted in 444 deaths.

Taking your eyes off the wheel for four seconds is equivalent to driving down the length of a football field blindfolded, Wheelis said. 

“Would you allow someone to blindfold you, put you behind the wheel on I-35 and make you drive the distance of a football field?” Wheelis said. “You wouldn’t do it. But that’s exactly what’s happening.”

Austin launched its own hands-free city ordinance in 2015, nearly two years before Texas passed its first statewide ban against texting while driving in September 2017. The city ordinance is stricter than the statewide ban, prohibiting drivers from handling an electronic device at all while driving.

UT Police Department Capt. Charles Bonnet said UTPD does not enforce the hands-free city ordinance, but UT has a handbook rule against distracted driving on campus, although officers do not write tickets solely for texting. When phone usage is involved in a traffic incident, students are often sent to the Office of the Dean of Students for appropriate punishment in lieu of criminal charges, Bonnet said. 

Vision Zero ATX is a transportation safety advocacy group that aims to reduce traffic-related deaths. 

“Driving is not a safe thing to do in the first place,” said Kathy Sokolic, Vision Zero ATX board member. “Hopping in a car and messing around … emailing or taking pictures of yourself, is not a wise decision. It’s a weapon, and people don’t take driving seriously.”