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Distracted Driving Archived Discussion Room

Fairfax County, Virginia

Distracted Driving

Are you annoyed with distracted drivers? Texting, talking on phones, eating and personal grooming have become new hazards on the road. Captain Susan Culin, commander of the Police Department's Traffic Division, and PFC Joe Moore answered your questions about this growing concern/epidemic in our county.

Susan Culin : We appreciate you joining us for a discussion on distracted driving. Distracted driving is a serious public safety issue and we need your help to address this problem.

Anonymous User : As I travel the county many officers are on the phone or typing on the laptop while driving. I know that all phone calls are not business related, so please do not give that as an answer.

Joseph Moore : You're right. As far as the phone, that is something we are currently dealing with. It is not illegal to talk on the phone and drive, but as officers, we should set the example. The laptops are another issue. To some extent, it may be necessary for an officer to use his laptop (mct), however we have a policy in place that prohibits the use of any device if it distracts the officer. While I can't speak for every officer, I can tell you that we are currently working to improve in this area.

Anonymous User : Is it illegal to talk on a cell phone while driving in Virginia? I see people talking on their phones all the time and they often are disruptive to traffic (sit through green lights, don't pay attention to other drivers). I recently saw someone talking while parking their car and they hit another car and didn't even seem to be aware of what they had done.

Susan Culin : Although we may soon see the day when cell phone use while driving is illegal in VA, it currently is not illegal unless you are under age 18. We have all too often observed the type of driving behavior you describe, which supports our strong position against distracted driving. While it may not be illegal to talk and drive, when you engage in this type of behavior and then swerve or brake inappropriately you may be guilty of “Fail to Pay Full Time and Attention to Driving” and can be charged.

Anonymous User : What can the police do about distracting drivers? What are the laws concerning cell phones? On average how many accidents are caused by distracted drivers? What age groups do the most damage while driving distracted?

Susan Culin : The police are always watching for drivers who display dangerous or illegal driving behavior. When we observe such behavior, and then note a distraction to the driver inside the vehicle, we will stop the vehicle and issue a summons. Although cell phone use for adult drivers in VA in not illegal. it may be illegal under “Fail to Pay Full Time and Attention to Driving” if the use of the phone is causing the driver to operate his or her vehicle inappropriately. In Fairfax County, distracted driving is responsible for over 50% of our reported crashes. We suspect this number is under reported and the percentage is actually greater. While these types of crashes occur with all age groups, our youthful drivers have the highest percentage likely because they also lack driving experience.

Pet Peeve : Pets in driver’s laps should be taken as serious distractions as well. Why don't we hear anything about this?

Joseph Moore : At this point, we are looking at all types of distractions. Cell phone/texting seems to be the hot topic, however, as we continue enforcement, we are finding eating, grooming, pets, etc to be of concern. In fact, there's a specific section of reckless driving that covers carrying things (or pets) that block the driver's view or ability to control the car. If you're a pet lover, you could help us by passing the word. Thanks.

Anonymous User : What about applications and services that allow drivers to send messages and control their phones by voice, and allow them to keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel, like StartTalking that works on my Android? What's the County's position on drivers using them instead?

Susan Culin : Any product that reduces distraction is a step in the right direction. The problem with hands free devices is that the driver’s concentration is still diverted to their conversation and is not on their driving where it should be. This lack of concentration greatly effects response time (slows it down) which can still lead to crashes.

Anonymous User : How can we get the law changed so talking and driving would not be allowed. D.C. did it

Joseph Moore : Great question... We go to Richmond each year to try and convince law makers to consider legislation that would make our roads safer. You, as a citizen can always contact your elected officials to voice your opinions. Thanks

Donna : There seems to be a lot of texting, grooming, etc. on 1-95 North and South. Will Virginia State Police be involved now or in future with this campaign? Also, the article I read, "R U Paying Attention to your Driving" only stated Chantilly as a target area. Will this campaign be county wide for just Chantilly right now?

Joseph Moore : We constantly work with the Virginia State Police and they are receptive to our enforcement efforts. We often work together on enforcement efforts. The current effort was launched in the Sully district of Fairfax County (Chantilly), but is a county-wide effort.

Mike : I understand that distracted driving a very real problem and something should be done. In the same breath, how is Fairfax County Police officers also following the rules as well? A number of time the police officers are either talking on cells, entering data into their computers and sipping coffee or a soda while driving. Thank you.

Susan Culin : Distracted driving is a problem for all drivers and one that public safety agencies must address as well. Although there are exceptions in our current laws for public safety officers, thus the use of their equipment while driving is not illegal; we obviously want our drivers to operate their vehicles safely. Public safety departments nationwide are looking at their internal policies and making adjustments to them. It is a difficult issue to address as critical dispatched information is put out to responding officers that they must acknowledge or officers may need to relay critical information back to dispatch or other officers. This information may be vital to officer safety or the safety of citizens to whom they are responding to.

Pete In Fairfax : Everyday during rush hour traffic nearly half of the drivers that I pass or that pass me are either texting or talking on their phones. The drivers are clearly detached from what is going on around them. Many times I find the passing lane moving 10mph below the posted speed limit only to eventually find out it is someone driving while on the phone and not aware that they are causing a 1 mile backup. What can we non-distracted drivers do when we see things like this on the road, other than scowl at the offending driver? Thank you.

Susan Culin : Your observations do not surprise me. The distracted driving problem in our area is huge and sadly has become the accepted norm by many. Too many drivers are using their drive time to take care of other personal business. Citizens can help by not participating in this type of driving behavior and supporting the efforts of law enforcement in our efforts to stop it. When the opportunity presents itself, speak out against distracted driving and help us change this acceptance level. Education plays an important role in changing behavior.

Allister Johanson : How often do you see students driving? And of these students, do you often see dangerous maneuvers? How often are they involved in crashes? How often do these accidents involve cell phones? Is there a significant different between talking on a cell phone while driving and texting while driving?

Susan Culin : I assume by students you mean 16 to 20 year old drivers or what we often refer to as our youthful drivers. There are a significant number of youthful drivers in Fairfax County. These drivers, by virtue of their age and thus minimal driving experience, are involved in a greater percentage of crashes for their age category than older, more experienced drivers. It is difficult to say how many of these crashes involve cell phone use. While we suspect the number is high, it is often difficult to prove as we often rely on self reporting for this determination. Few drivers, youths or adults, will readily admit that they were distracted by a phone when they crashed, but often state something similar to “I just didn’t see him (the other vehicle)”. Certainly there is a difference between talking on a cell phone and driving and texting and driving, although both practices are dangerous. In order to text, the driver’s eyes are taken off the road, as well as one or both hands. When talking on a cell phone and driving, one hand may be taken off the steering wheel and your eyes may remain on the road, but your concentration is still diverted to the conversation you are having. Studies have shown that the concentration of a young driver is disrupted significantly by participating in a cell phone conversation and slows their response time to that of a 70 year old.

Anonymous : I do not think implementing a law is the answer to cell phone use because it is so ingrained in our daily lives now. In addition, MD and WDC have implemented hands free talking on your cell phone and it has not cut down on distracted driving accidents. Under what circumstances are you deeming a person an unsafe driver and pulling them over to issue a ticket?

Joseph Moore : You make a great point... it's ingrained in our daily lives. That's exactly what we are trying to change. If you look at jurisdictions with stronger texting laws, they actually do show a decrease in crashes. History has shown that sometimes, legislation is the only way to gain compliance. If you look back at seat belt/child safety seat use, enforcement was the only way to gain compliance. As a result, fatal crashes are down. We are also investigating technology to help with the problem. In our effort, we are targeting those drivers who's behavior results in poor driving. We are looking for swerving, unusual braking, sitting still at green lights, etc.

Michael Riemer : Have you heard about ZoomSafer? A Fairfax County business that is the leading provider of software for teens, consumers and enterprises to prevent distracted driving due to cell phone use?

Susan Culin : I recently heard about ZoomSafer but have not had the time to research it yet. While the police department does not endorse any specific commercial product, we are happy to hear that private industry is taking a hard look at the distracted driving problem and coming up with ways to address it. Products that can disable the use of a cell phone or the ability to text while driving can certainly be useful.

Anonymous User : Will distracted driving be discussed during the Youthful Driver Program put on at the criminal justice academy?

Joseph Moore : Distracted driving is discussed at length at our Youthful Driver Program. In fact, we have a mother who lost a teen due to a crash as a guest speaker. The students are reminded of laws that pertain to their provisional licenses as well. It's a great program and if you're interested in improving your teen's driving skills, check out this link for information....

Steve : What are some ways citizens can help reduce the problem? Would you consider bringing back the online reporting page (I know it was cut due to staffing issues)? I often see aggressive and distracted drivers on the road. It is frustrating because the problem seems to be getting worse. The county roads can be a scary place these days.

Susan Culin : The best way citizens can help is by setting a good example themselves and not participating in this type of behavior. Too often we see drivers engaged in dangerous driving behavior while other passengers, often their own children, are in the vehicle with them observing the behavior. This sends the wrong message to our kids, implying that this type of behavior is ok. If all drivers “policed” their own behavior we wouldn’t have the problem we have now. Even better, get involved! Help us spread the message about how dangerous this behavior is. We need to change the public’s general acceptance of using their drive time to take care of other business. At this time we will not be using an on-line reporting page as an officer needs to observe the driving behavior caused by the distraction in order to take action.

Anonymous User : Could you address an item in a article posted yesterday on wtop's website at regarding a reporter going on a ride-along with a police officer? During the ride they encountered distracted drivers and the reporter noted that "all the drivers we check out are OK..." What was done to "check them out," and how were they determined to be OK if they were driving distracted? Will only certain people be ticketed?

Joseph Moore : In Virginia, it's not against the law to drive and talk on the phone. I was the officer out with the WTOP reporter, and reading it after the fact, I understand the confusion. We noticed drivers engaged in extra activities in their cars (eating, talking, etc). We watched the vehicles and noticed that it did not appear to affect their operation of the vehicle. We take action when a driver's distraction results in poor operation of the vehicle (speeding, swerving, erradic driving, etc). Sorry for the confusion.

Susan : Keep up the good work on this...I see this as keeping us safe. Thank you!

Susan Culin : Thank you! We also see this type of enforcement and education as a means of keeping people safe!

Margaret Howell : How much is the Distracted Driving fine for first offense? Second offense? etc..

Joseph Moore : It depends on the charge used. Currently, the "texting" law results in a fine of $20 for a first offense and $50 for subsequent charges. Things like wearing headphones while driving and failing to pay full time/attention are traffic infractions and may result in a fine of up to $250. If the driving behavior threatens life, limb, or property, there is a maximum fine of $2500 and up to a year in jail. Thanks

Susan : I have reported seriously distracted drivers in the past - ones who continually cross into other lanes, etc. If I call 1 time a month or so, do I go on the "cranky old lady" list or something. This is getting to be a bigger and bigger problem and I understand an occassional lane crossing but really....

Susan Culin : Thank you for taking the time to report dangerous drivers. We appreciate your willingness to take action and, no worries, we don't have a "cranky old lady list"! Just be sure if you are calling in a distracted driver, you do so when it's safe to call (you are sitting still or pull off the road) and don't become distracted yourself.

sara1 : I drive in Tysons daily and I can't tell you how many times I find myself driving next to someone who is staring down at a smartphone instead of paying attention. Is it ok to give a short honk to try to get the inattentive driver to look up and pay attention, or is that a bad idea?

Joseph Moore : Although tempting, this is not a good idea. For one thing, it is a traffic infraction to use your horn except to warn a motorist of an impending collision. Besides that, there are some disturbed individuals out there and you probably don't want to provoke them. I'd just ask that you trust us and our efforts.

Daniel Walsch : With more drivers on the road, this seems to be a growing problem for all of us. What we can to help the police get the word out about what a serious and even dangerous problem this is?

Joseph Moore : Thanks for wanting to get involved. If anyone out there has any public, private, or eduational connections that could assist us in this effort, we'd love to hear from you. The traffic safety section periodically does distracted driving presentations. If you have a specific group to which you'd like to get the word out, we can assist you with a presentation. You can contact our Public Information Office at 703-246-2253 to set something up.

James Smith : What should we do if we see a distracted driver? Should we contact the police non emergency number or just try to stay far away from them? Thanks

Joseph Moore : If you think the driver is endangering other motorists or yourself, call 911. I would also try to stay away from them, good call. The problem with distracted drivers is, you can't predict their actions, so leave plenty of distance. Be careful.

Anonymous User : What about the Fairfax PD car I saw run off the road using his laptop in the car? He did not get a ticket...what is fair about that

Susan Culin : Public safety employees have to make decisions about when it is safe to send and acknowledge critical information; information on which safety can depend, as I explained in a previous answer. For this reason our laws have exceptions for public safety employees. That stated, this is an issue that concerns us and we continuously look for ways to improve safety. I can tell you that if an officer is involved in a crash or reported traffic violation the incident is investigated internally and disciplinary action may be taken against the officer.

sd : what happens after a complaint is lodged against a driver?

Joseph Moore : When a complaint is called in, a lookout for the vehicle is broadcast over the police radio as well as sent as a BOLO (Be on the lookout) to their computers. The best thing to do is follow the directions given by the dispatcher. Sometimes, these complaints result in the apprehension of an intoxicated driver... or worse. Thanks.

Anonymous User : Seems like another way for the Police to make money off of people, why keep enforcing these little laws that no one cares about and why do police in Fairfax County not go pursue larger scale crimes like murder? In the last 3 months there've been too many murders to count (especially in the Asian community) and the police react by saying "We're going to try to catch you text messaging while driving." Sounds like you guys need to fire some officers if thats all you have time to do. I always see cops in Burke just standing around and sitting at 7 elevens doing nothing. What a waste of my tax money. Your trying to catch me texting while someone else is probably killing or robbing someone right under your noses.

Susan Culin : Preventing distracted driving is not about making money, it is about saving lives. The Police Department does not receive money from fines that accompany violations. These fines go to the County or State. While murder is certainly a horrendous issue, I’m not sure where you got your information regarding “in the last 3 months there’ve been too many murders to count”. While one murder is one too many, we have had 13 homicides in Fairfax County thus far in 2010. On the other hand, many citizens have been injured or killed in car crashes. Thus far in 2010, we have had 26 fatal crashes, a number we have successfully reduced over the last three years. In the first 9 months of 2010, Fairfax County experienced over 6000 reportable crashes. By reducing distracted driving, we will be reducing crashes, thus reducing property damage, injuries and even death.

Joseph Moore : Thanks for all the interest in our efforts to prevent distracted driving. Remember, when you're driving, focus on it. That phone call, text, or burger can wait. Stay safe!