A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
How many times have you found yourself behind a slow driver poking along, disrupting the flow of traffic, with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding a cell phone to his ear? Or pulled up to a red light and watched the driver in the next lane with her head bowed over her smart phone, texting, as she coasted to a stop?
National statistics on the prevalence of distracted driving are sobering. According to the website distraction.gov, in 2014, some 3,179 people were killed and another 431,000 were injured on U.S. roads in vehicle crashes that involved distracted driving.
A lot of things fit under the definition of distracted driving, including eating, applying make-up, or reading a road map while operating a vehicle. But texting is considered one of the worst because it distracts a driver several ways at once; it involves visual, manual and cognitive functioning.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2.2 percent of drivers in 2014 text messaged or visibly manipulated hand-held electronic devices while operating a vehicle.
In the past 10 to 20 years, such statistics have prompted local legislation in virtually all U.S. jurisdictions – including the U.S. Virgin Islands – designed to regulate the use of electronic devices by drivers.
Now the NHTSA is proposing that automobile manufacturers and cell phone companies join the effort.
The administration issued a statement just before Thanksgiving urging smartphone makers to devise technology to lock out most apps – including the ability to text – when a phone is being used by someone driving a vehicle. It also wants automakers to make their infotainment systems more smart phone friendly.
“The NHTSA has long encouraged drivers to put down their cell phones and other devices, and just drive,” Mark Rosekind, the NHTSA administrator was quoted in the release. “With driver distraction one of the factors behind the rise of traffic fatalities, we are committed to working with the industry to ensure that mobile devices are designed to keep drivers’ eyes where they belong – on the road.”
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, it’s illegal to talk on a hand-held device while driving. The territory’s Distracted Driving Act was passed in 2005 and amended in 2011 to increase the penalties for infractions.
A first offense merits a fine of $100, a second offense, $200. A third offense within a three-year period is punishable by a fine of $300 and the possible suspension of the offender’s driver’s license for as long as one year.
Hands-free phones are legal in the territory, except for people driving on a learner’s permit and for school bus drivers. Those two categories of drivers are forbidden to use any type of phone while driving, except in an emergency.
How big a problem is texting and telephoning while driving in the Virgin Islands?
Attempts to get an answer to that question from the V.I. Police Department met with limited success. After two weeks and repeated requests for comment and for statistics, VIPD public information officer Glen Dratte supplied the Source with a spread sheet detailing the types of traffic tickets issued in fiscal year 2015 on St. Croix.
There were 3,724 tickets issued for moving violations. (There were also 34 parking tickets.)
Of the 3,724 moving violations, 119 – or 3.19 percent – represented citations for cellular phone use while driving.
By far, the greatest number of moving violations on St. Croix in FY 2015 were for failure to wear a seat belt. There were 902 citations for that, representing more than 24 percent of the total. The next highest number of tickets – 437 (11.7 percent of the total) – went for driving an unregistered vehicle.