Fatal Distraction

Written by Niki D'Andrea Category: Hot Topics Issue: March 2014
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Distracted driving causes thousands of accidents and hundreds of deaths in Arizona every year, yet there's no statewide law prohibiting it. Can it wait?

On a clear, still-sunny Monday evening in early May, 33-year-old Jorge Espinoza drives his empty fuel tanker on Interstate 8, about 40 miles east of Yuma.

The truck's dashboard camera records two views: the interior cab of the truck, and the rolling ribbon of asphalt in front of the 18-wheeler. The song "She's So High," a one-hit wonder for singer Tal Bachman in 1999, plays on the radio. Espinoza's black leather wallet is propped in front of the cab camera, obscuring its view of him. The camera continues to capture the roaring drone of the wind through a crack in Espinoza's window as it crackles over the strains of the Bachman song.

The dash cam facing the road shows Espinoza's truck rolling toward several vehicles parked along the highway in response to an accident scene. The nearest vehicle is an Arizona Department of Public Safety car; near it, a DPS officer waves frantically at Espinoza before running out of the way into a nearby ditch.

Espinoza's seven-ton truck barrels over the DPS vehicle at 65 miles per hour; the camera captures a sound like a giant aluminum can being crushed. Inside the car is DPS officer Timothy Huffman, 47, filling out an accident report. He is killed instantly. Inside the truck, Espinoza grips the steering wheel with white-knuckled panic, his expression a mix of gritted teeth and wide-eyed horror as he's jostled in his seat at every impact – two more police cars, two fire trucks, civilian vehicles. The view through the windshield is a chaotic flash of asphalt, shrapnel, smoke, ditch. The semi tosses cars like toys across the roadway. Less than three seconds has elapsed.

A still shot inside the cab from the moment of impact shows something else flying through the air: Espinoza's white Samsung Galaxy 3 cell phone. Police say Espinoza's cell phone records show that at the time of the crash, he was on Facebook, looking at photos of scantily dressed women. Espinoza faces 20 felony charges stemming from the accident on May 6, 2013, including a second-degree murder charge in the death of officer Huffman. He pleaded not guilty and was released on $200,000 bond. A trial date had not yet been set as this issue went to press.

The Espinoza accident may be Arizona's most high-profile example of the dangers of distracted driving, but there are many other stories. The Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety rate Arizona as a "red" state, meaning the "state falls dangerously behind in adoption of key safety laws." According to distraction.gov, 12 states ban hand-held cell phone use while driving, and 41 states have laws prohibiting text messaging while driving. Arizona has no laws against either practice (we do, however, have a law prohibiting school bus drivers from using cell phones on the job, and Phoenix and Tucson both have scarcely enforced ordinances against hand-held cell phone use while driving). The lack of state laws isn't for lack of trying – over the past eight years, Arizona politicians from both parties have introduced various bills regarding distracted driving, but none have made it out of the House. While lawmakers negotiate new anti-distracted-driving bills every legislative session – including the current session, where three more bills have been introduced – some Valley high schools and state law enforcement agencies are launching educational campaigns, including DPS. "I think [DPS] understands the dangers of this as much as anybody does after having lost one of their own," says Arizona Senator Steve Farley (D-Tucson), who has sponsored several anti-distracted-driving bills since 2006. "They understand there is a clear and present danger to all of them if they don't continue to crack down on this practice. They are the Department of Public Safety, and this is a clear public safety issue for all of us who use our roadways."


DPS officer Timothy Huffman (left) was killed when a semi driven by Jorge Espinoza (right) collided with his car. Espinoza was reportedly on Facebook while driving.

No LOL Matter
Imagine strapping yourself into a two-ton piece of steel and glass and driving it 55 mph across a football field – blindfolded. That's the equivalent of sending or receiving a text message while driving, which takes your eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), texting while driving multiplies the risk of a crash by 23, and driver distraction is a factor in an estimated 25 percent of all crashes. Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called distracted driving "a serious and deadly epidemic on America's roadways," adding, "There is no way to text and drive safely."

According to the NHTSA, 3,328 people were killed in distracted-affected crashes in 2012, and an estimated 421,000 people were injured in accidents involving a distracted driver. A survey by National Occupant Protection Use Surveys revealed that at any given moment during the day across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using electronic devices while driving. A study done last year by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety showed that nine out of 10 Americans view distracted driving as a much larger problem today than it was three years ago, and yet two out of three drivers still reported using a cell phone while driving within the month prior to the survey. Additionally, respondents who admitted to talking on cell phones at the wheel were also likely to engage in other bad behaviors while driving, including speeding (65 percent), texting and emailing (53 percent), driving while drowsy (43 percent), and not wearing a seatbelt (29 percent). "The majority of motorists recognize distracted driving dangers," AAA Arizona communications director Linda Gorman concluded, "yet choose to engage in them anyway."

While public-safety advocates have been vocally fighting drunk driving for years, we're just starting to see national campaigns warning of the dangers of distracted driving. It's a similar trajectory, according to Senator Steve Farley. "Back in the '70s, people used to joke about drinking and driving," he says, "and it was sort of a hahaha thing. And then we changed it in the '80s to make it something where we understand how dangerous it is. This is serious business. You don't joke anymore."

Some people might think they can "safely" text while driving, much like some might say they can "safely" drive after a drink or two. But according to the NHTSA, a distracted driver's reaction time is the same as that of someone with a .08 percent blood alcohol content – a level legally deemed "impaired" in every state. And a person driving distracted is said to be six times more likely to crash than a person driving impaired.

Just as national campaigns against drunk driving increased public awareness of the problem, campaigns to educate the public about distracted driving are giving the issue a higher profile. AT&T's "It Can Wait" campaign, launched in 2009, has the backing of all major U.S. carriers and encourages drivers, especially teenagers, to take a pledge to not use electronic devices while driving. The campaign received a boost in visibility from legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog, with the release of Herzog's 35-minute, devastating documentary, From One Second to the Next. Released last year and viewable in its entirety at wernerherzog.com, the film spotlights four tragic cases of distracted driving, and includes interviews not only with victims' families, but two men whose decisions to text while driving resulted in the deaths of others.

Arizona Dieways
Tammy Huffman understands one of the most tragic consequences of a distracted-driving crash – the loss of a loved one. Every day, she looks into the face of fallen Arizona DPS officer Timothy Huffman – or rather, the face of his identical twin brother, Warren Huffman (older by eight minutes), to whom she's been married for 25 years. "It's so funny, because when Tim would come to our house, he would walk in and say, 'Hey honey, I'm home!'" Tammy recalls. "He was just funny. He was such a good character." Tammy says Timothy, a single guy with no children, took the late-night shift so the DPS officers who had kids could spend time with them. She says her and Warren's children thought of Timothy "as a second dad," and since his death, there's been a daily void in their lives. The couple, who live in Michigan, say Timothy planned to move in with them when he retired. "We were actually designing a house, so that when we did retire, we could live with each other," Warren says. "He had it all laid out exactly how he wanted it – the big porch for nice warm weather, and he wanted his own big room."

Tammy chuckles and adds, "We basically called it a duplex on steroids. Tim used to tease me and say 'How are you going to live with both of us?' And I'd say, 'I'm a big girl. I can handle you.' But... it's all gone now."

The Huffmans were told the accident scene officer Huffman was responding to when he was hit and killed by Espinoza's big-rig involved a teenager texting at the wheel. "That's what's most concerning – people are getting so comfortable at the wheel that they think they're in their La-Z-Boy recliner in their living room, when they're not," Tammy says. "You have your hands on one of the biggest weapons you'll ever have your hands on when you're behind the wheel of a vehicle. And you can destroy people's lives. You can destroy your own life, and your family's lives. I just want people to understand that impact."

Distracted driving is particularly troubling in Arizona, where the fatality rate for crashes has generously exceeded the national average every year since at least 2002, according to data from the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) and the NHTSA. The ADOT 2012 crash report lists distracted driving as a factor in 11,139 out of 195,762 accidents, and specifically the use of an electronic-communication device as a factor in 197 crashes. "[Distracted driving] is getting worse. It's not getting better. I'm sorry," Alberto Gutier, director of the Arizona Governor's Office of Highway Safety (AGOHS), says. "There are so many things you see on the highway, and you just say, 'Oh my god.' I remember seeing some guy opening his mail, with both hands, from Northern to Thomas along Seventh Avenue one day... and his knee was driving."

Other forms of distraction include, but are not limited to: eating, changing CDs or radio stations, manipulating iPods, applying makeup or grooming, and interacting with passengers and pets. But AAA Arizona public affairs supervisor Michelle Donati called text messaging "the mother of all distractions." Texting and cruising social media are considered particularly dangerous because they involve all three types of distractions – visual (eyes off road), manual (hands off wheel) and cognitive (mind off driving).

In 2003, the Ford Motor Company Fund established the Ford Driving Skills for Life program to educate teens about safe driving. Last November, the program came to Wild Horse Pass on the Gila River Indian Community, where several high-school students from the East Valley Institute of Technology took a driving test: They were told to navigate an obstacle course of cones, while sending a text message and changing the radio station. Drivers hit several cones before completing the course. Last fall, Surprise city councilman John Williams began working with the West Valley Youth Leadership Council on a campaign for a statewide ban on texting while driving. This spring, the group is working with ASU West professor Charles St. Clair to craft a Public Service Announcement to promote their initiative.

Arizona legislators have also been trying to create and pass laws to prohibit distracted driving statewide. Democrat Senator Steve Farley's proposed a plethora of ill-fated bills, which he says have been "received very well by most legislators," but have been "single-handedly blocked" every year by the Senate Majority Leader, Republican Andy Biggs (Senator Biggs' office did not respond to PHOENIX magazine's request for comment by press time).

While some roadblocks to distracted driving legislation may be political, Gutier says the real problem is logistical. "My argument has always been... how do you enforce it?" he says, adding that DPS "has a manpower shortage." He also points out the cities of Tucson and Phoenix both passed ordinances about five years ago banning text messaging while driving – the Phoenix ordinance calls for a $100 fine if the violator's not involved in an accident; $250 if they are – but Gutier says neither ordinance has proven particularly effective. "I think the records I got [for Phoenix] were for four years, and in those four years, I think they wrote about 110 citations," Gutier says. "And only 29 have been adjudicated. With a population of five million, and three million in the city every day, you only write a hundred citations in five years? What it's telling us is that it's difficult to cite, but also difficult to enforce, and to adjudicate."

Senator Farley says a statewide law banning some forms of distracted driving would not only qualify Arizona for much-needed federal funds reserved for states with existing bans, but car insurance premiums would go down and the law would be incorporated into driver education curriculums. "I don't know what kind of message we're sending in Arizona, the last Wild West state to allow you to do anything you want to do, whether or not it's dangerous on the roadway," Farley says. "But we don't like that kind of reputation anymore, so having a texting law again emphasizes that we're a civilized state here, who does care about those types of issues."

Driving It Home
"I've been a Republican since Goldwater ran for president, and after 51 years, I'm to the point where I don't care who I insult," AZGOHS director Alberto Gutier says. "If people are doing stupid things like texting and driving or drinking and driving or speeding... they're stupid and dumb."

In the absence of a statute, Gutier says DPS plans to launch a statewide initiative this spring to reduce distracted driving. The focus will primarily be on educating the public, but officers can cite drivers for using cell phones while driving if they've stopped them for another traffic violation, like speeding or repeatedly crossing the center line. "The statement is basically that distracted driving's illegal," Gutier says. "We've been working with DPS for a couple months now, and we'll be providing some overtime funding for them to tackle this issue of distracted driving. But the key to this thing is the education of the public. Don't drive distracted. Don't text message, don't use cell phones."

In mid-January, DPS spokesman Bart Graves confirmed the department was discussing what to do about distracted driving, but denied a "crackdown" was to start that month, as had been previously reported by local media. "We're discussing what we can do with existing laws. But there's no program that's been rolled out," he said. "We may do it sometime this spring."

Gutier also advocates the use of devices like hands-free Jabra speaker phones and Bluetooth and voice-activated technology, which allow people to make and answer calls verbally, without touching or looking at their phones. He has one in his vehicle and bought two of his children similar hands-free devices for their vehicles.

Some emerging technology takes things a step further, disabling two-way communication in phones while a vehicle is in motion. One such product reportedly in development is called Zero, created by Chandler-based company Telurex SSA. The device would block calls, texts and Internet access if a car's moving faster than 3 mph. Last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation released voluntary guidelines for automobile manufacturers with criteria for devices that require drivers to take their eyes or hands off the wheel.

Senator Farley says he's not going to stop pushing for a ban on texting while driving in Arizona. He's one of three legislators who've introduced bills this session that would prohibit texting while driving. "The thing that's kept me going all these years of not having a law is... every time somebody does a story on this, it saves lives," he says. "They read it and they think to themselves, 'Wow, I don't need a law. I'm just not going to do this.'"

State Rep. Victoria Steele (D-Tucson) introduced HB 2376 this session, which would ban text messaging while driving for all Arizona drivers. Of the three bills related to distracted driving, she says, "We're hoping one of them gets through. This really needs to happen. We cannot afford to just lay low on this and just give up. It's a matter of life and death."

Tammy Huffman says she hopes people start to see the serious risks of driving while distracted. "Is it really worth someone's life for that one sports update?" she asks. "Or is it really urgent to know that Johnny's eating pizza? Really? When you look at life – and you see what's lost, is it really worth it?"


Buffaloed Bills
Arizona is one of only nine states that does not have a law banning texting while driving. Lawmakers have introduced bills every year for the past several years, to no avail. Here are just a few of those bills:

SB 1056 - Sponsored by Sen. John McComish (R-Ahwatukee). Would have banned texting and cell phone use by drivers younger than 18 who have had a license for less than six months. The Arizona Legislature approved the bill in January 2012 and sent it to the House, where it died in committee.

HB 2512 - Sponsored by Rep. Steve Urie (R-Gilbert). Would outlaw texting by all drivers. The Transportation Committee approved the bill in January 2012, and it is currently pending at the House Judiciary Committee.

HB 2312 - Sponsored by Sen. Steve Farley (D-Tucson). Would have prohibited all forms of distracted driving and would have required investigators to discern whether distracted driving was a factor in an accident. The bill died in the House in March 2012.

SB 1218 - Sponsored by Sen. Steve Farley (D-Tucson). Would have banned texting for all drivers. The bill stalled at the Legislature in February 2013.

Crash Course
Over the course of one year in Arizona, there were:

195,762 total crashes

11,139 crashes with distracted driving as a factor

197 crashes with use of an electronic-communications device as a factor

source: Arizona Department of Transportation, Arizona Motor Vehicle Crash Facts 2012