Doctor’s death highlights dangers of texting while driving

Nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted driver, and more than half a million were injured.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

When celebrity plastic surgeon Frank Ryan’s Jeep Wrangler careened off the side of Pacific Coast Highway last week, killing him and injuring his dog, the blogosphere exploded with reports that the doctor had been “tweeting” just before the accident.

A California Highway Patrol spokesman confirmed for People magazine that Ryan was texting just before the crash, but investigators have not announced an official cause of the accident.

California’s Wireless Communications Device Law that made it an infraction to write, send or read text-based communication while driving went into effect at the beginning of 2009. But high-profile accidents like Ryan’s bring to the forefront the sobering statistics of the new age of telecommunication.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, almost 6,000 people were killed and a half-million injured in 2008 in crashes relating to driver distraction. It is estimated that the cost of these accidents amount to some $43 billion. Twenty percent of experienced adult drivers in the U.S. send text messages while driving. And texting while driving is about six times more likely to result in an accident than driving while intoxicated.

While the majority of Americans believe that talking on the phone and texting are two of the most dangerous behaviors a driver can engage in, 81 percent of drivers admit to making phone calls while driving.

For parents, of major concern are cell phone habits of teens-statistically the most inexperienced drivers and those drivers most likely to engage in distracting behavior. According to a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, teen drivers are four times more likely than adults to get into car crashes or near-crash events because of cell phone use. The same study noted that those who text while driving are 23 times more likely to get into an accident. (Although many studies point to teens engaging in distracted behavior while driving more than adults, a Pew Research Center study found that 47 percent of adults text while driving, compared to 34 percent of teenagers.)

These numbers became heartbreaking reality in the case of 17-year-old Bailey Goodman in Rochester New York, when her SUV slammed head-on into a truck, killing her and four friends who had just graduated in June of 2007. Goodman had sent and received text messages just before the accident.

Carol Randall of Malibu’s Public Safety Commission said the commission regularly discusses the dangers of cell phone and texting use while driving.

“This is a no-brainer,” Randall said by phone. “It should be a matter for serious family discussion because it’s all around us.”

Randall said she didn’t think traffic fines were acting as a deterrent to dangerous driving habits. She recounted the story of a friend of hers who was recently involved in a motorcycle accident on the 405 Freeway. A car, whose driver was texting, sideswiped him and pushed him into another car whose driver was on her cell phone.

“He survived, but with major injuries,” Randall said. “One issue the Public Safety Commission has taken up is how we can educate Malibu’s drivers on the importance of keeping your full attention on the road.”

One step the commission is taking is to develop an educational program that addresses all forms of problem driving, from texting to illegal U-turns. Younger members of the commission take presentations to Malibu High School on a regular basis.

Currently, fines for texting while driving are set at $20 for the first offense and $50 for the second. But Sgt. Phil Brooks of the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station said those fines don’t reflect the real cost of a ticket.

“Those are just the baseline fines,” Brooks said. “With court fees, insurance rate hikes and so forth, one ticket can end up costing you hundreds if not thousands of dollars, particularly if you are involved in an accident because of texting while driving.”

Brooks said that while any distraction when driving, such as changing a CD, presents a danger, cell phone use was usually any city’s major contributing ticketing factor. The Sheriff’s Department gives “Teen Driving” talks to Malibu High School students at least once a year. He said he hopes the message gets through to the city’s young drivers.

“People often won’t admit that they were texting if involved in an accident,” Brooks said. “But we issue lots of tickets for non-handheld cell phone use while driving.”

Dr. Ryan’s accident occurred near the 350-mile marker on Pacific Coast Highway, a short drive from the Bony Pony Ranch, a foundation he established to serve at-risk youth. His last twitter post read: “After 25 years of driving by, I finally hiked to the top of the giant sand dune on the [Pacific Coast Highway] west of Malibu. Much harder than it looks! Whew!”

Memorial plans for Ryan are pending.

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