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Trib: Drivers Texting at Stoplights Accident Waiting to Happen

Always drives me nuts when I see drivers on smartphones.  Even at stoplights.  Glad to see the dangers discussed in the Chicago Tribune.  

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By Jon Hilkevitch and Lauren Zumbach, Chicago Tribune reporters

The light had turned green, but the driver preparing to turn left from Dearborn Street onto Upper Wacker Drive on Wednesday sat there for four seconds until a chorus of honks behind her jolted her away from looking at her phone.

This scene and others like it involving drivers who look at their phones while stopped in traffic are becoming increasingly familiar in Illinois and across the nation. And, according to transportation experts, police officers and researchers, the distracted driving is snarling traffic and causing many crashes, some of them likely deadly.

Illinois bans using phones in traffic in many cases and will crack down on it even more next year.

"If your foot is on the brake pedal, and you are texting, it is a violation" punishable by a fine ranging from $90 to $500 in Chicago, Chicago police Lt. Steve Sesso said. "I've seen people texting and putting their makeup on while stopped. There are all sorts of scenarios that you can find."

Traffic flow disruption occurs when fewer vehicles make it through intersections during each green light, according to police officers who say they often observe more eyes at intersections pointed down than on the road.

Texting while stopped can also spark road rage in drivers delayed by the texting motorists and can lead texting motorists to pull jack-rabbit starts and other erratic maneuvers once they snap out of their reverie, according to Fred Mannering, associate director for research at Purdue University's Center for Road Safety.

Put another way, it takes 4.6 seconds on average to read or send a text while behind the wheel, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. So in less time than it takes to type "AYTMTB" (shorthand for "And you're telling me this because"), any one of thousands of "smart" signals in Chicago and the suburbs that react to vehicle volume can change from red to green.

And a slow reaction by a texting driver to start moving — whether the vehicle is first in line or farther back — can mislead these traffic signals into thinking that vehicles on one street have cleared out and it's time to switch the signal to allow cross traffic to move, said Mannering, a civil engineering professor who studies driver behavior and the cause and effect of traffic accidents.

"If there is as little as a two-second delay between cars, fewer cars make it through on a shortened green phase," Mannering said. "The traffic signals become what we call 'gapped out,' because the detectors in the pavement think the queue has ended and no more traffic needs to get through on the green movement."

Smart-signal intersections have vehicle-detection systems that help determine the length of a green light, based on how many vehicles are present. The stopped vehicle of a texting motorist often creates a gap between vehicles during a green light, which triggers detectors into ending the green light, Mannering said.

Besides promoting traffic congestion, texting while stopped in traffic is illegal in Illinois. Exceptions are if the driver is texting to report an emergency, using a hands-free or voice-activated device, parked on the shoulder, or stopped in traffic with the transmission in park (or neutral, for a manual transmission).

Illinois' cellphone and texting laws are primary laws, meaning a police officer can pull over the driver without having to see another violation. Seventy-five Illinois municipalities, including Chicago, ban hand-held cellphone use for all drivers.

Effective Jan. 1, the use of hand-held devices while driving will be illegal in Illinois, except in the case of an emergency. Hands-free technology will be allowed.

Little data is available on drivers texting while stopped in traffic. But using cellphones and texting while driving, more generally, cause 1.6 million accidents a year in the United States, according to the National Safety Council.

In Illinois, almost 6,000 crashes have occurred from 2008 to 2012 in which some form of driver distraction involving a cellphone was cited by police, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. The toll included 30 fatalities and more than 2,500 injuries, IDOT said.

IDOT officials call those numbers conservative and say the crashes almost certainly include drivers who were texting while stopped in traffic.

"The information is based on what officers choose to write on the crash reports," IDOT spokeswoman Jae Miller said. "We think that distractions and phones as a cause are probably underrepresented."

In response to the problem of distracted driving, Illinois State Police and local law enforcement agencies in Illinois have been doing an increasing number of stings this year to catch drivers texting and engaging in other behavior that involves phones and electronic devices.

This year through October, state police troopers issued about 2,300 citations and more than 1,300 warnings for texting while driving.

Federal, state and local officials have shone a bright light on distracted driving. For instance, the U.S. Department of Transportation points out that people who text while behind the wheel are 23 times more likely to be in a crash.

But awareness of that risk hasn't reached enough drivers.

Evidence of the problem was in full view Wednesday in Chicago. At several intersections in the Loop, Lakeview and Streeterville, drivers waiting for lights to change could be seen flicking their eyes up and down every few seconds, glancing back and forth from phones to the road.

Others, like a beer delivery truck driver waiting at the intersection of North Ashland Avenue and West Addison Street, held phones at eye level to watch the road and their screens simultaneously.

The beer truck driver was among six of nine waiting drivers at that intersection who appeared to be checking their phones. Government surveys consistently have found that almost half of smartphone users admit to texting while driving.

Some drivers spotted by a Tribune reporter Wednesday were better multitaskers than others. A Ford F-150 pickup truck waiting to turn from South Dearborn Street onto West Madison Street leapt off the white line when the driver, absorbed in tapping on a smartphone, realized the left-turn signal he had been waiting for had passed from green to yellow.

Drivers who were interviewed said texting while driving is definitely dangerous, but texting at a stoplight seemed harmless.

"If you have a minute to check your phone, you're going to use it," Sean Dwijendra, of Chicago, said with a shrug.

"It's annoying, but that's about it," Brittany Noble said, adding that she texts while waiting at a light only about once a week. She has been stuck behind drivers she assumes were checking their phones when they failed to go at a green light but said she has never missed a light because of it, she said.

Larry Baker said he has gotten honked at more times than he would like to admit, for texting while stopped at a red light.

The Chicago man said he feels bad when he holds up other drivers but not bad enough to quit the habit because he does business on the phone and some text messages just can't wait.

"If your foot's on the brake, it doesn't seem like a problem," he said Wednesday.

Mannering, the Purdue professor, said he recently led a field study in West Lafayette, Ind., in which almost 25 percent of the drivers at stoplights were texting or talking on cellphones.

Accidents are more likely to occur in such a scenario because of drivers' diminished attention, he said.

For example, motorists texting while stopped in left-turn lanes may hit the gas when, out of the corner of their eye, they see other vehicles moving, even though their turn arrow is still red, Mannering said.

The mistake has resulted in collisions, he said.

Illinois officials said similar crashes have occurred here, too.

Steve Travia, IDOT's chief of traffic operations for the Chicago region, summed it up this way:

"You pull up on a typical side street at a major thoroughfare, and you know it's a long light, you've been through it a hundred times," Travia said. "You are the guy third or fourth in line and the guy in the front is texting and just wasted your opportunity and you may have to wait through a second light. Frustration starts to build up. There are a whole host of things that can go wrong.

"Being momentarily stopped does not mean you are not operating your vehicle," Travia said. "The task of driving always requires your full attention."

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I think drivers license should be suspended for texting while driving. 3 months the first time and greater penalties the second and third. Perhaps in 10 years we will be use to the term "TWD". Remember drunk driving wasn't very penalized 20+ years ago?

I often see drivers move a few feet before they look up from the phone.  I'm always on the lookout for this when I ride past cars exiting parking lots.

I look forward to the Autonomous car.

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