Distracted driving crashes hit new high in Tennessee - WSMV News 4

Distracted driving crashes hit new high in Tennessee

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Some say distracted driving law aren't being enforced. (WSMV) Some say distracted driving law aren't being enforced. (WSMV)
NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

For Sarah Kuck, the spray paint on Highway 50 marks more than a car crash. It identifies the worst day of her life.

"I watched him in my rear-view mirror,” Kuck said. “I watched until he hit my car, and that person never slowed down,”

All Kuck remembers from the crash last December was that she was driving her nephew and two daughters to school.

She came to a stop at the intersection, but she said the man behind her did not.

“When I came to, I remember hearing my daughter and my nephew crying and I didn't hear Haven,” Kuck said.

Kuck said her youngest daughter was severely injured. She spent months in rehab and only recently regaining movement in her body.

Her daughter, Haven Edmiston, 9, died almost immediately.

While the Tennessee Highway Patrol indicated all possibilities are being investigated, a trooper told the Channel 4 I-Team “distracted driving is one of the main focuses” of the case.

"If it could have been avoided. My daughter would still be here. I wouldn't have to feel this every day. I wouldn't have had to pick a headstone out for my 9-year-old,” Kuck said.

So how often does distracted driving happen? And what would we find - if we simply watched drivers for just three minutes?

Fifty-one people died in crashes involving a distracted driver last year in Tennessee, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

Kuck said that figure excludes Haven's case because the driver is still being investigated.

Last year, the number of crashes involving distracted driving hit a new high: 22,964. That figure has nearly doubled since 2008, according to data provided by TDSHS.

"To me, the answer to this is crackdown,” Kuck said. “Enforce the laws that you have put out there."

But is the law enforceable?

The I-Team took that question to the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

“That's a hard question to answer,” said Col. Tracy Trott. “It's so hard to articulate the size of the problem.”

The ban on texting and driving passed in 2009, but the law doesn't address perusing numbers or even holding a phone in your hand.

Lawmakers tried passing a bill this session that would ban all hand-held cellphone use while driving, but the measure never made it out of committee.

What's left is a law that only tackles a fraction of the problem.

“People invent new ways to kill themselves every year and it's troubling,” Col. Trott said.

Of course, distracted driving encompasses far more than just texting. So we wanted to see for ourselves.

The I-Team stood at an overpass in Nashville during morning rush hour. In less than three minutes, we spotted at least 43 instances of what appeared to be distracted driving.

In most cases, the drivers seemed to be talking on the phone.

We spotted others who appeared to be texting, drinking or looking away. One driver was even checking herself out in the mirror.

But under current statute, most of these drivers aren’t even breaking the law.

Then we rode along with a THP trooper, where the view from the road is just as discouraging.

Countless drivers passed us with their phones out in the open. One young man looked down into his lap nearly 10 times as he reaches speeds of 80 mph.

But maybe what encourages drivers is that the penalty for texting and driving is about as serious as a penalty for parking ticket.

“It's a moving violation, so why does the law treat it like a non-moving violation?” said Henry Queener, a personal injury lawyer in Nashville.

Queener said the law needs stiffer penalties. Fines range between $10 and $50, and citations never result in points on one’s license.

“A safety law is only as good as a deterrent,” Queener said.

Kuck agreed. She viewed her daughter as more than a statistic. Instead, she saw a little girl who deserved to live.

“I have said it a thousand times, I do believe this could have been avoided,” Kuck said.

Trott said because it’s so hard to prove that drivers were texting while driving, troopers have gravitated toward a statute that’s broader: failure to exercise due care.

So far in 2016, THP has issued 3,695 citations for failure to exercise due care. That’s more than six times the number of citations issued for texting while driving this year.

Texting while driving citations issued by THP:

  • 2010 – 171 citations
  • 2011 – 179
  • 2012 – 380
  • 2013 – 799
  • 2014 – 1,352
  • 2015 – 1,722
  • 2016 – 678

Tennessee fatalities involving a distracted driver (Source: THP):

  • 2006 – 28 fatalities
  • 2007 – 27
  • 2008 – 31
  • 2009 – 27
  • 2010 – 52
  • 2011 – 66
  • 2012 – 57
  • 2013 – 62
  • 2014 – 47
  • 2015 – 51
  • 2016 – 18

Tennessee distracted driver crashes (Source: Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security)

  • 2006 – 10,573 crashes
  • 2007 – 10,347
  • 2008 – 10,822
  • 2009 – 12,506
  • 2010 – 14,679
  • 2011 – 18,854
  • 2012 – 20,169
  • 2013 – 19,122
  • 2014 – 21,052
  • 2015 – 22,964
  • 2016 – 5,614

NOTE: Excludes parking lot and private property crashes, as well as crashes with less than $400 damage.

Copyright 2016 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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