"I really didn't think it was that big a deal – you know, texting and driving. All my friends text or check their email. We all do it. To me, it seemed like doing them both at the same time wasn't really hard. Actually, it's pretty easy to me. But I don't want to get caught doing it. I know it's against the law. I'm stopping because I'm just scared of getting stopped by the police."
– Jackie, 17
– Southwind High School
"Jackie," who feels that texting and driving is an easy prospect, is not alone. According to textinganddrivingsafety.com, about 55 percent of teens nationwide also feel, "It's easy to text and drive."
Apparently, it is not. The numbers don't lie. Distracted driving, or texting while driving, is the number one killer of teens nationwide, according to the Tennessee Governor's Highway Safety Office, headed up by Director Kendell Poole.
And as if that is not enough, Tennessee has the highest percentage of fatalities attributed to cell phone use in the nation, said the 2013 National Safety Council's report. In Shelby County last year, there were 5,251 distracted driving crashes as opposed to 727 alcohol-related crashes, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety, Office of Research, Statistics, and Analysis Report.
Enough said. If Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham has his way, Shelby County's distracted crash numbers will be way down by the year's end. April was declared Distracted Driving Awareness Month by the National Safety Council. Oldham marked the NSC's declaration with one of his own. The Reduce Impaired Distracted Driving (R.I.D.D.) initiative was launched with a four-pronged attack: education, enforcement, media, and investigation.
"I tried to take a look at highway safety in Shelby County, and when we track the distracted driving crashes, they are causing many more injuries than impaired driving," said Oldham. "And the fatality numbers are climbing rapidly. It is alarming, and we had to act to make the streets safer. Many of our Shelby County kids are texting and driving. They just don't realize how dangerous it is."
R.I.D.D. is designed to put teeth in state laws prohibiting the use of cell phones by drivers. While talking on a cell phone when driving is not outlawed, texting while driving is prohibited for all drivers in all vehicles in the state of Tennessee. Even reading a text message is considered "texting." Drivers with a learner's permit or an intermediate license are not allowed to use a cell phone while driving under any circumstances.
Up to this point, drivers who have been stopped by law enforcement have been issued warnings rather than tickets. No more warnings, said Oldham. "You have been duly warned."
A fleet of R.I.D.D. vehicles will be trolling the streets of Shelby County looking for distracted driving behaviors, such as driving outside of the lane or swerving, following too closely, texting, impeding traffic, and aggressive maneuvering. Distracted driving is now a ticketed offense in Shelby County. Offenders could also be arrested. Injury and fatality numbers must come down, said county officials.
To educate young drivers, an impaired driving tabletop simulator and the golf cart driving program will be used in Shelby County Schools to demonstrate the real life dangers that impaired driving and distracted driving pose for teens behind the wheel.
Also, the R.I.D.D. Unit and Community Services Bureau will provide educational training and awareness to Neighborhood Watch Programs, churches, businesses and community organizations.
Investigation will be a major component of the R.I.D.D. Unit as Traffic Bureau personnel will be trained on how to identify distracted driving evidence for prosecution.
"When a driver is traveling 50 to 55 miles an hour and texting on a cell phone, just taking their eyes off the road for a fraction of a second can be fatal," said Oldham.
"We hope to reach more kids through our education programs. When they realize what the statistics are, how many teens have actually lost their lives in distracted driver crashes, I believe we will see a marked change in behavior. Ticketing reinforces our strategy."
(For more information on the R.I.D.D. Unit, or to schedule an officer for an educational session on distracted driving, call the Shelby County Sheriff's Office at: 901-222-5500.)