Ga. officials: Distracted driving likely tied to more highway deaths

Georgia officials are blaming a spike in highway deaths on distracted drivers — and reckless ones.

The state’s highway deaths are up 12 percent this year over last year — putting Georgia on track to have the first increase in highway deaths in nine years — to 791 as of Wednesday morning, said Natalie Dale, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.

Nationally, officials are blaming a 14 percent increase in fatal accident deaths this year on distracted driving, according to the National Safety Council. From January to June, nearly 19,000 people were killed in traffic accidents.

Officials suspect texting while driving is behind the rise, but point to a series of distracting behaviors by those behind the wheel. About half of the deaths were single-vehicle crashes with a fixed object such as a bridge or tree, said Dale.

“It is talking on the phone, it is eating, it is putting on your makeup,” she said said. “We don’t want to specifically say it is texting but I see that more than anything else….And you know who it is when you see people speeding up and slowing down and unable to maintain their lane. We used to think those were the drunk people.”

Driver arrogance — people think they’re “safe” while distracted — and apathy are the biggest hurdles to safer highways, she said. About 74 percent of the deaths this year arose from driver behavior such as texting or falling asleep.

A study by AT&T found that 70 percent of smartphone users are distracted drivers and that texting has ballooned into even more potentially dangerous behaviors. The study was done as part of the company’s anti-texting and driving campaign, which launched in 2014.

Forty percent of smartphone users admit to tapping into social media while driving, 30 percent surf the net and 10 percent even video chat, researchers found.

“Texting and emailing are still the most prevalent,” the study found. “Among social platforms, Facebook tops the list, with more than a quarter of those polled using the app while driving. About 1-in-7 said they’re on Twitter behind the wheel.”

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