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Distracted drivers a difficult problem to solve

DeKalb High School driver’s education instructor Mark Sykes (right) advises student Jaylen Cole, 15, as he does a behind-the-wheel session Tuesday.
DeKalb High School driver’s education instructor Mark Sykes (right) advises student Jaylen Cole, 15, as he does a behind-the-wheel session Tuesday.

DeKALB – D.D. is not always a positive term when it comes to driving.

Distracted drivers are a growing concern for many law enforcement agencies and driving instructors as technology such as smartphones, iPads and advanced GPS systems take more eyes off the roads.

In DeKalb, the police department issues between five to 10 warnings or citations each week for texting while driving, said Lt. Jason Leverton. For drivers who get caught, it could cost $125.

But the problem, Leverton said, is that many drivers are never ticketed or warned for texting while driving. Because cellphone use is still legal in most driving situations, it can be hard for officers to determine whether a driver is making a call or sending a text, Leverton said.

And exceptions carved out in the law, such as allowing drivers to text while stopped at a red light or a train crossing, take away officers’ best chance to witness the otherwise illegal activity.

“This is something that is really on the drivers to realize on their own what they’re doing isn’t safe,” Leverton said. “Some people have learned from their own experience. A number of drivers have had close calls because of texting and distractions.”

According to the U.S. Transportation Department, more than 3,000 people were killed in each of the past three years because of distracted drivers. The Illinois State Police have issued 19,540 citations and warnings for distracted driving from the beginning of 2010 through the end of 2011. Numbers for 2012 have not been released.

Gary Dumdie, chief deputy of the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office, said more public awareness campaigns and legislation would be needed to decrease those numbers.

Some vehicles now have built-in GPS that do not allow changes to be made to the program when the car is in motion, Dumdie said. He said many phones have similar GPS and can recognize high speeds, suggesting certain features in phones such as texting automatically shut off when the internal GPS registers certain speeds.

“It’s something the transportation safety board could look at,” Dumdie said of stricter legislation. “The technology is there to do a lot of those type of things if the education and awareness does not solve the issue.”

The best method to prevent distracted driving habits is to stop them before they start, said Mark Sykes, a driver’s education instructor at DeKalb High School.

Classroom sessions on the dangers of texting, iPods and the use of other electronic devices while driving has become a much larger portion of the curriculum, he said. Many of the students have already entered driver’s education as savvy users of the devices and witnessed friends and family talk on cell phones or text while driving, he said.

That existing level of comfort with the devices makes it even more important that students understand the danger, he said.

“If they do it once, they feel like they will have no problem doing it again,” Sykes said of texting while driving. “Alcohol is still the number one problem, but we don’t want this to keep creeping up. There needs to be more awareness made.”

The sometimes intense public service announcements and graphic educational material has sent the message to Rodney Wilson.

Wilson, a sophomore in Sykes’ class, said while he has seen family and friends text while driving he has also seen enough of the potential consequences to keep his phone down.

“I think most of us take it very seriously,” Wilson said. “We’re just starting to drive.”

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