KSL Investigates: State failures to enforce texting and driving law
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — When Leslee Henson Rasmussen runs these days, she makes sure she’s running against traffic. If a car ever comes barreling toward her like it did five years ago, she wants to see it coming.
When she and her husband, David were hit in March 2013, the impact came from behind. The couple of 38 years, on a walk in St. George, never stood a chance.
“We didn’t see a thing,” she said. “It happened so quickly.”
That day, a texting driver pushed another vehicle off the road and into a collision with the Hensons. David, 57, was killed. Leslee was severely injured.
“(When) you’re looking at the phone, you’re not looking at the road and you’re thinking about what you’re doing on that phone,” she said. “I get really frustrated. … Because it took my husband’s life, I’m being really judgmental about it and I want it stopped.”
Using a handheld device to send a text message, dial a phone number, use the internet or record or watch videos while driving is against the law here. Still, between 2012 and 2016, distracted driving killed 108 people in Utah, according to crash data and statistics from the Utah Department of Public Safety.
KSL Investigators rode for hundreds of miles with truckers from three trucking companies. In one 45-minute count along I-15, 29 drivers appeared to be texting.
Shafer has been in trucking for 27 years and has seen the onset of cellphones. Since they are professional drivers, he said the truckers’ rules against cellphone use are strict.
“We want to make sure that the drivers are not distracted by picking up the phone or texting or anything like that — it’s totally unsafe,” he said. “You’ve got an 80,000-pound rig going down the road. That rolling mass is a responsibility.”
But from their high perches, he and those like him see its impact on the drivers that surround them every day.
“I see a lot of drivers swerving in and out … and when I catch up to them, sure enough, they’re on their phone,” Skyler Droubay of Double D Distribution said, before estimating: “Twenty to 25 percent of people are driving distracted.”
A recent study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that engaging in tasks such as reaching for your phone, looking up a contact and dialing a number, can increase the risk of a crash by three times. Text messaging alone doubled the risk of a crash, the study found, and led drivers to take their eyes off of the road for an average of 23 seconds at a time.
Rick Webster of Maxway Trucking, pointed out one driver trying to hold on to the steering wheel, his head bobbing up and down as it moved from the road in front of him to the glowing screen in his car.
“They think they’re in control, but they’re really not,” Webster said. “There’s nothing safe about it.”
The Utah law banning this type of use of a handheld device while driving went into effect in 2014.
“The law states that you can’t manipulate your cell phone, so that means you can’t. You basically have to go hands-free,” Lt. Todd Royce, spokesman for the Utah Highway Patrol, said.
But the effort to crackdown on offenders is ongoing.
“Of course we understand it’s a major problem out on the roadways,” Royce said.
Last year, the Utah Highway Patrol announced that it was launching an aggressive new enforcement plan. A re-purposed tactical van was introduced as the state’s answer to the rise of distracted driving.
“Because it was an elevated van, it was easy to look down in those vehicles and see that and then we would call ahead and have those troopers pull them over,” Royce said.
The day the van was unveiled to the media, troopers pulled over 38 distracted drivers. Then, use of the van stalled.
“We’ve only done it twice,” Royce said. “And the reason we’ve only done it twice is we’ve had other things come up.”
Though effective, the van requires 15-20 troopers to be in position to make stops. Royce said more pressing issues, such as the operation to clean up downtown Salt Lake City or the onslaught of traffic crashes that accompany winter storms, have tied up their resources.
“The original idea for (the van) wasn’t just to be a media event,” Royce explained. “It was supposed to be for enforcement, but because other things have come up and other resources have been used in different places, we haven’t been able to get back to that.”
The Utah Highway Patrol hasn’t stopped pulling over distracted drivers, but it’s up to the individual troopers to catch violators. Still, Royce is optimistic that the van will be back in the future.
“You’ll see that van out again, ,” he said. “We haven’t scrapped that idea altogether, but it’s going to take some time and some planning to put that together.”
Rasmussen is just grateful law enforcement now has a law to enforce. She said she sent emails and visited the Utah State Legislature several times after her husband’s death.
“Now law enforcement can actually pull someone over,” she said. “We hope it’s making a difference.”
She said she would like to see steeper fines for those caught in the act of driving distracted. Under the current law, those caught typing on a device can face a class C misdemeanor and up to $100 in fines. Rasmussen would like that increased to $500.
Carla Brennan, the woman who pushed the vehicle into the Hensons, pleaded no contest to automobile homicide negligent use of handheld wireless device, a third-degree felony, in 2015. She was sentenced to 364 days in jail.
“A year in jail wasn’t enough,” Rasmussen said.
She said her husband was a good man, a positive person. A husband, father and grandfather who was always smiling.
Another driver told Rasmussen after the accident that her husband had tried to pull her from the car’s deadly path. She doesn’t remember that, but she remembers the magic of their first date, their conversation just before the fatal crash about David’s retirement that had just begun and the bruises that covered her body and 5,000 staples in her head that came after.
Her experience has led her to launch her own educational campaign against distracted driving — stop the texts, stop the wrecks. It serves as a reminder of the devastating impact of driving distracted.
“We know when it’s wrong,” Rasmussen said. “If it’s against the law, we shouldn’t be doing it.”
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