Distracted driving - the good, the bad and the deadly

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Mayor Lisa Sulka poses with her 43 key and lanyard at Bluffton High School's Memorial Garden. Sulka said she has signed the pledge for 43 Key Seconds, and is pleased that the Town of Bluffton is the first in the state to partner with the Lutzie 43 Foundat

The good news is the percentage of drivers in the U.S. using hand-held cell phones has dropped from 5.2 percent in 2012 to 2.9 percent in 2017.

The bad news is that 2.9 percent of drivers are still using their phones - texting, talking, taking photos - taking their attention away from the road.

And the deadly?

In 2016, 3,450 people were killed as a result of distracted driving; an additional 391,000 people were injured.

April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month and the Town of Bluffton will be partnering with 43 Key Seconds, a national campaign to educate and bring awareness to area drivers about the hazards of distracted driving.

Distracted driving includes using a phone, eating and drinking, talking to passengers, pushing buttons on the car radio or navigation system, or any other activity that takes focus away from safe driving.

The statistics come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but they aren't merely cold data. Each number - the dead and the injured - is a person with a family, friends and acquaintances who suffered the pain and loss.

SEC football fans might recall Auburn student-athlete Philip Lutzenkirchen, a star football player from 2009 to 2012. He died June 29, 2014, in a single-vehicle accident in which he was a backseat passenger. He was not wearing a seat belt; the driver had been drinking. Philip was 23.

In honor of his son, Mike Lutzenkirchen started the Lutzie 43 Foundation "unofficially in mid-August 2014 and officially in mid-November," he said. The goal of the foundation is to "inspire young people to make better decisions as drivers and friends," according to the foundation's website.

The 43 Key Seconds Initiative evolved from the foundation and was announced Oct. 22, 2018, during a press conference at the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation in Atlanta.

"Everything the foundation focuses on is based on Philip's jersey #43 he wore during his four-year Auburn career," Lutzenkirchen said. "It was easy to come up with a 43-second countdown. We encourage all drivers, with added focus on teen and college-age drivers."

The campaign's 43-second pause includes four simple actions to take before cranking up the ignition: Clear your head, clear your hands, clear and focus your eyes, and click your seat belt. Lutzenkirchen said the steps were created "with a goal of changing the narrative on avoidable crashes and fatalities due to distracted and impaired driving."

Participants in the program who sign a pledge receive a physical "key" to hang from the rearview mirror to remind them of the 43-second pause.

Lutzenkirchen will visit Bluffton and speak at several schools April 8. "His story is amazing and one that I believe will get the attention of young drivers," said Bluffton Police Department spokesperson Joy Nelson.

Distracted driving is a critical issue for Bluffton's Mayor Lisa Sulka. Her nephew died as a result of texting while driving. She wants to make sure other families do not experience similar losses.

"I have a key and I have signed the pledge. We are thrilled to partner with such an amazing foundation and expect it to be a fabulous success," said Sulka. "While we are aiming it at the next generation, we all know they learn from their parents and friends, and hope that they can help spread the word on simple steps before putting the car in drive. I am already practicing and every time I get in the car I say to myself 'head, hands, eyes,' but I do click it first.

"We are the first in South Carolina to partner and my hopes are that all other municipalities and others buy in to it," Sulka added.

Texting while driving has been illegal in South Carolina since December 2014. As part of a campaign of engagement, education and enforcement, Bluffton police officers began issuing hefty tickets last June to those caught using their cell phones behind the wheel, beginning with a $100 fine.

Bluffton Police Chief Chris Chapmond said his officers report that most of the accidents they come upon are the result of distracted driving.

"Almost all rear-end collisions are a result of someone not paying attention to the road and their surroundings," the chief said. "Officers witness almost daily people who are swerving in their lanes due to eating, texting, picking something off the floor of their car. The hardest part about distracted driving is proving the driver was doing something other than paying attention, unless they admit to it."

Lutzenkirchen, who lives in Georgia, said the feedback from drivers who have received or placed the 43 key and lanyard around their rearview mirror are becoming ingrained at viewing the key and triggering their behavior.

"They have put their phone down to observe hands-free law, stop texting or reading emails while driving, wearing their seat belt and telling all their passengers to be seat-belted, and having better focus on watching the road," he said.

The 43 Key Seconds initiative has been supported by prominent names in athletics, including Dabo Swinney, Nick Saban, and Cody Parkey of the Chicago Bears. The Lutzie 43 Foundation has also partnered with companies, organizations and other police departments to create change among employees and in communities. For more information, visit lutzie43.org.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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