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DISTRACTED DRIVING: Texting, app use increases deaths on Ohio highways

Distracted driving seen as culprit as deadly crash totals tick up.

Sharon Montgomery lost her husband John in September 2000 when a driver on a cell phone rear-ended a car that then slammed into theirs at a U.S. 62 intersection in Johnstown, Ohio, injuring her and killing him.

“Take her first. Take her first,” John told the first-responders.

Those were the last words she heard her husband speak.

RELATED: OSU student killed in distracted crash: ‘In a blink of an eye, it can be over’

Dominic Tiberi of Dublin lost his 21-year-old daughter Maria in 2013 when she was killed in what he believes was a distracted driving accident on Interstate 270.

“In a blink of an eye, it can be over,” he said.

Distracted driving was identified in 13,999 crashes in Ohio in 2016, and talking, texting and web surfing while driving is seen a big factor in why auto fatalities ticked up nationally in 2015 for the first time in five decades.

Just last month, a Beavercreek woman lost control of her vehicle as she told a highway trooper she was reaching for her cell phone and ended up crashing through a Wright-Patterson Air Force Base fence on Ohio 444.

RELATED: You won’t believe apps used by distracted drivers: Netflix? You Tube?

But cell phones aren’t the only driver distraction. Despite safety features that include airbags, anti-lock brakes and electronic stability programs, today’s vehicles may be unwittingly contributing to the problem, according to researchers.

New vehicles today come with a dizzying array of features, many of them activated by a user’s voice. In new vehicles, voice commands can begin phone calls, play songs, adjust vehicle cabin temperatures and activate a growing list of compatible mobile apps. Some vehicles even have 17-inch touch-screen displays.

Automakers have created a “smorgasbord of distractions,” said David Strayer, a professor of cognition and neural sciences with the University of Utah, who has studied the limits of human multi-taking abilities.

“I rented a car just recently,” Strayer said. “I think it had 50 buttons, 50 multi-function buttons. And Lord help you if you hit the wrong button. It could affect traction and steering.”

“We’re off the rails in terms of the level of distractions we’re seeing,” he said.

>>>RELATED: Fatal truck wreck killing son spurs father to take action

Research shows that drivers who use hands-free technology sometimes develop a kind of “tunnel vision,” losing focus on the actual task of driving, said Cindy Antrican, a spokeswoman for AAA in the Miami Valley.

“They weren’t able to see stop signs, pedestrians, other cars, because they weren’t focused on the actual act of driving,” Antrican said.

Strayer said his research shows that simply talking on one’s phone while driving is problematic.

From research conducted since 2015, Strayer ranked driving activities on a 5-point scale, with 5 indicating the highest risk. Listening to the radio as a distraction ranks as a relatively low 1.2, he found, but talking on the phone was much higher at 2.5, and using your voice to trigger an array of vehicle features was a dangerously high 4.5.

“Your attention is taken away from driving,” Strayer said. “It leads to what we refer to as “inattentional blindness.”

An eye-opener for AAA researchers: In a poll, three of four drivers thought that hands-free technology was safe to use, Antrican said.

Research doesn’t support that idea.

“Hands free is not risk free,” she said.

Lives changed — and ended

Sharon Montgomery didn’t find out until later what caused the crash that killed her husband.

The collision rendered both of them unconscious, and when they awoke the darkened 1988 Lincoln Town Car wasn’t running and the twisted dashboard was in their laps.

Said Montgomery: “I could taste blood.”

Her memories came in quick fleeting bursts. She tried to unbuckle her seat-belt and open her door; she even tried to blow the car horn at one point. Nothing worked.

She later found out what happened: A driver on a cell phone slammed into the back of a car that was waiting to take a left turn. “It threw it (another vehicle) into the intersection, in our path,” Montgomery said.

Dom Tiberi, a sports anchor at WBNS-TV in Columbus, described the emotional words last said to his daughter, a graphic design major, before she left their home.

“My wife said, ‘I love you Maria.’ And she said ‘I love you more,’” Tiberi recalled.

“And that was the last time we heard her voice.”

Maria was killed when the Toyota Corolla she was driving crashed into the rear of a stopped semi truck trailer on Interstate 270 at more than 50 mph. The crash, which Tiberi assumes occurred after his daughter became distracted, happened just three miles from the family’s house in Dublin.

Following the deadly crash, the Tiberis started The Maria Tiberi Foundation and have donated 44 driving simulators., including one with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office. As part of the foundation’s work, Dom Tiberi has visited 84 high schools, speaking to students.

Turning off the distraction

There were 35,092 people killed in all U.S. traffic crashes in 2015, a number that reversed a five-decade trend of declining fatalities with a 7.2 percent increase in traffic deaths from 2014.

Distracted driving is blamed for at least part of that increase in deaths.

“It’s frightening,” said Elise Spriggs, a senior vice president for State Auto. “I’m a mother of a three children. I have a teenage driver.”

RELATEDTrucks get blame for unsafe highways, but car drivers cause majority of crashes

Spriggs said she has placed a device from Cellcontrol in her car — much to her teenage daughter’s chagrin — that blocks iOS and Android phone use. Cellcontrol says the device blocks texting and messaging, rendering phones temporarily inert and harmless.

Spriggs has no qualms about using the device.

“The data that I’ve seen, it’s that scary,” she said.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2015 nationally, 3,477 people were killed, and 391,000 injured, in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. During daylight hours, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones while driving, the agency says.

Beyond technology, there’s another contributing factor: More of us are driving.

“The broader trends are: The economy has improved, more people are driving, there are more miles … there are more people on the road than ever before,” said Michael Barry, spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, a non-profit formed for the insurance industry.

‘It’s a bad thing’

Today’s cell phones offer plenty of features that can distract a driver.

Google Maps is the top phone app used by drivers, but others have been found to use Facebook, Twitter and even Netflix while behind the wheel, according to TrueMotion, a Boston-based company that studies drivers habits.

Other uses tied to drivers in the TrueMotion study: Pokemon Go, Android Messaging, You Tube, Waze, Amazon Music, Chrome, and Pandora.

RELATED: Dangerous Highways: Inspectors look for unsafe trucks

Insurance reps or local attorneys who deal with distracted driving cases aren’t surprised.

“Distracted driving is a problem, and it’s increasing,” said Ken Ignozzi, attorney with the Dayton law firm of Dyer, Garofalo, Mann & Schultz. “A lot of times distracted drivers, they deny or they lie about it. They don’t admit to it because they know it’s a bad thing.”

In litigation or depositions after accidents, attorneys can request drivers’ cell phone records, Ignozzi said. These computer-generated, automated records are coldly factual — they show phone calls, with dates, times and duration of calls, he said.

“You can understand the maps and the music,” said State Auto’s Spriggs. “But you’re on Facebook and Netflix and You Tube while you’re driving?”

Ted Gramer, TrueMotion chief executive and a former executive vice president and chief claims officer with Liberty Mutual Insurance, said distracted driving is “epidemic” in the United States.

“Just the number of accidents that happen tear your heart out,” Gramer said. “You can look at the families that have been destroyed just by four seconds of texting.”

Texting while driving is probably as risky or riskier than driving while impaired from alcohol, Gramer said.

Legal tools

Distracted driving is a factor in 58 percent of the crashes involving teens, including 76 percent of rear-end collisions and 89 percent of roadway-departure crashes, according to AAA.

States often try new laws, but some experts are skeptical that a meaningful legislative remedy can be crafted.

>>>RELATED: Ohio Patrol cracking down on distracted driving this week; state considering higher fines

Fourteen states ban hand-held cell phone use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

No state bans all cell phone use for all drivers, but 38 states and Washington, D.C., ban all cell phone use by new or teen drivers, and 21 states and the District of Columbia prohibit cell phone use for school bus drivers, the conference said.

Forty-seven states — including Ohio — ban text messaging for all drivers.

Still, the problem persists.

“Legislation hasn’t helped so far,” said Jessica Cicchino, vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “It’s hard for drivers to even know what’s covered under the law.”

Two bills before the Ohio House of Representatives suggest varying remedies, stiffening fines and stretching the instructional period for young drivers, among other measures.

House Bill 95, introduced in March, makes distracted driving a secondary offense that can result in a fine of up to $100. Drivers would have to be pulled over first for a moving or primary violation in order to be cited for the offense.

Although he says he recognizes the problem of distracted driving, Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miami Twp., opposes the bill.

“A $100 fine is not going to deter this kind of behavior,” he said.

House Bill 293 would offer what AAA advocates believe would be stronger protections for younger drivers, giving them a driving curfew of 9 p.m. and extending the time under which they drive with a permit for one year.

Sharon Montgomery says she is doing what she can to get people to take distracted driving more seriously.

“In these many years, I have moved from grieving widow to angry advocate,” she said. “People need to know. This is not just a fender-bender. This is not just a traffic accident. This is something that affects people for the rest of their lives.”

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