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WOOSTER -- Distracted driving is any non-driving activity that has the potential of distracting a driver from the primary task of operating their vehicle. It's increasingly problematic and responsible for a growing number of crashes.
April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and the Wooster Post of the Ohio State Highway Patrol is reminding drivers to keep their eyes and focus on the roadway while driving.
Common distractions include texting or talking on a cellphone, talking to passengers, eating, adjusting the radio and using a navigation system.
Distractions can be visual (eyes off the road), manual (hands off the wheel), or cognitive (mind off driving), according to the patrol, which notes that because texting involves all three, it is particularly dangerous.
"Every time someone takes their eyes off the road -- even for just a few seconds -- they put their lives and the lives of others in danger," said Lt. Stephanie Norman, commander of the Wooster Post," adding, "Distracted driving is unsafe and irresponsible. In a split second, its consequences can be devastating."
Sending or receiving a text message takes a driver's eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, the equivalent of driving the length of an entire football field when traveling at 55 mph, according to the patrol.
Ohio law bans all "electronic wireless communication device" usage for drivers under 18. Texting while driving is illegal for all drivers, as a secondary offense.
In 2016, 13,994 drivers in Ohio crashed while being distracted by something within their vehicles. Twenty-six of these drivers were in fatal crashes, which resulted in 27 deaths. Another 4,965 drivers were in injury crashes resulting in 7,239 injuries.
The number of reported distracted drivers rose 5 percent in 2015 over the previous year, after rising 11 percent from 2014 to 2015.
Locally, Norman said, distracted driving is the most common contributing factor to failure to yield violations, the top crash-causing violation -- responsible for three of four fatalities in 2017 -- in Wayne and Holmes counties.
"A majority of what we're seeing is linked to failure to yield, folks are paying more attention to other things -- they're looking down, they're not paying attention to what's going on outside the car," she said, explaining failure to yield goes well beyond stop sign violations.
"It's not only stop signs, it's yielding the right of way when making a left turn, yielding to other traffic when exiting a ramp, or pulling from a private driveway," she said, noting that regardless of who the driver is, there's always the potential for a distraction -- friends, children, cellphones.
"If you're driving, you have the ability to be distracted one way or another," she said, adding that while officers rely on drivers to self-report cell phone use in a crash, "I don't know anyone right now who doesn't have a cellphone.
"If you have one, odds are you've picked it up at one time or another when driving, even if it's just to see who calling."
Wayne County Sheriff's Capt. Doug Hunter said it's text messaging people often associate with distracted driving, so much so that "it has become a nationwide problem, despite the fact the ability to send text messages is relatively new."
Realizing even a minor crash, one that results in property damage only, can have financial consequences of several thousand dollars, he suggests most distractions are best avoided entirely.
"Most text message can wait until there's a safer time," he said, suggesting all drivers "take a look at the last 10 conversations you've had via text message and evaluate them on a scale of 1-10 for importance.
I think people can draw their own conclusions as to how necessary it was for them to provide an immediate response," he said, noting the most common text exchange is limited to a simple "K," which "doesn't qualify as anything requiring an immediate response."
Unless you're involved in a profession that requires you to be immediately accessible, it may be best to turn it off entirely while driving, but that's a very difficult thing for people to do," said Hunter, who similarly encourages drivers to avoid other distractions.
To that end, he said he recently observed, while traveling in Wooster, "a woman brushing her teeth as she was driving down the road."
"It's not just cellphones, but they're certainly at the top of my list of things that would distract drivers," said Hunter, noting, "Behind the wheel is not the place to multitask. If you think about it, there's already a lot of multitasking going on while you're driving, and you do not need to interject another component into that."
Recognizing there is value to carrying a cellphone, Norman similarly challenges all drivers to put their phone in their purse or pocket.
"See if you can do it," she said, noting, "It's about placing your priority and your focus on the roadway and not always picking up the phone."
Reporter Christine Pratt can be reached at 330-674-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.