In December 2010, a Charleston Southern University freshman died in an automobile accident while heading home for the holidays. The cause was texting while driving.
The teen’s death had a local impact: he was the nephew of Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka. She was quite blunt about what happened when she spoke at a recent news conference at the Bluffton Police Department, which was held to update information about its distracted driving campaign.
“He was distracted coming home and got in a horrible accident,” said Sulka. “We have to break the bad habits that every one of us have with distracted driving.”
Nearly 10 percent of fatal traffic accidents nationwide in 2016 – a total of 3,157 – were from distracted driving.
Based on more statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, that number could have been higher. Texting while driving caused 25 percent of all traffic accidents in 2016, accounting for approximately 1,820,000 accidents out of an estimated 7,277,000 crashes.
Distracted driving is not only texting.
“Anything that you do that takes your eyes off the road for even a second is distracted driving,” said Interim Bluffton Police Chief Scott Chandler.
Among other distractions are eating and drinking, putting on makeup, talking on the phone or to others in the car, listening to loud music, adjusting the navigation system, changing the radio and reading an email.
As part of a campaign initiated last fall, Bluffton is about to implement a more stringent enforcement of a traffic ordinance that went into effect in 2013 prohibiting texting while driving.
Chandler said that through the end of May offenders will receive a warning and an information card that notes the tragic statistics of distracted driving.
“This is part of our campaign of engagement, education and enforcement,” Chandler said. “We have been engaging with the public since we began the Distracted Driving Campaign. We’ve also been educating people wherever we can.”
Enforcement will begin June 1 when distracted drivers receive tickets.
“The first one will be $100, the second $200 and the third $300,” said Chandler, “It’s costly, but it’s cheap when you think about what it could cost.”
It might be easy to assume the biggest distracted driving problem is with teenagers because they are never far from their devices, but adults are equally guilty.
In 2013, the NHTSA reported that 10 percent of distracted drivers involved in fatal crashes were between the ages of 15-19. The remaining 90 percent were age 20 and older.
“Technology is amazing, but with all the good, there is some bad,” Sulka said. “But the kids get it. We adults need to do better.”
New, bright orange traffic signs will be installed at Bluffton and May River High Schools reminding students to “Hang up and drive” and “Don’t text and drive.” The signs will also appear at high-traffic locations, such as May River Road and Buckwalter Parkway.
“We’re all busy. We use technology to get us where we’re going,” Sulka said. “Or we’re at a red light and checking that one text or taking that one bite of sandwich. I have pledged to our high school students that I would stop doing that.”
Sulka reminded those attending that, with summer coming, people are going on vacation and vacationers are coming here, so traffic will get heavier.
“We have to be a good role model to our students,” she said. “Listen up and take the stand from distracted driving. This town is full of vibrant families and we want to keep it that way.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.