GOSHEN COUNTY – All it takes is five seconds to open and reply to a text message.
That’s enough to open your phone, read the message and send a short reply. Your plans are intact, your significant other is sated, or whatever the situation is – it’s handled.
But at 55 miles an hour, that’s also enough time to travel more than 100 yards – more than the length of Wiseman Field at Torrington High School.
“To the person doing it, it’s just ‘I’m doing this real quick,’” Torrington Police Department Patrolman Kevin Polson said. “To the person that’s in the crosshairs of your vehicle, it’s a whole different situation.”
Within the last month, in separate incidents across the country, the people in those crosshairs were children either getting on or off school buses. According to CNN, five children died in a span of three days due to distracted drivers failing to heed the lights and stop signs on buses.
On Oct. 30 in Indiana, a nine-year-old girl tried to shield her younger twin brothers as an inattentive driver in a pickup truck was barreling down on them while they were trying to board a school bus. None of them survived.
On Oct. 31, in Tupelo, Miss., a nine-year-old was struck and killed as the child crossed the road to board a school bus. That same day, a kindergartener in Florida was injured under similar circumstances.
On Nov. 1 in Pennsylvania, a nine-year-old was found dead by a school bus driver. Evidence showed the child was killed by a slow-moving vehicle. That same day in Tampa, Fl., five children and two adults left their bus stop in an ambulance after being hit by a car. None of the injuries were life-threatening, but one child was in critical condition.
It was a tragic week - and if not for a vigilant bus driver, Torrington would have potentially been dealing with its own tragedy, according to Donna Bath, Goshen County School District No. 1 transportation supervisor.
“The day that those twins were killed and the nine-year-old, that very day I had a bus stopped and a car turn the corner and went right through the stop sign,” she said.
“They just don’t care”
A near-miss is frightening, but what’s even worse is the fact it’s happening more often.
“We have motorists running our reds,” Bath said. “It happens two or three times a month probably.
“That’s the problem. You would be amazed at how many people don’t see the big yellow bus with flashing red lights. They’re either on their phone or texting or playing with the gadgets in their vehicle or they’re in a hurry. They just don’t care.”
According to Polson, incidents of distracted driving are on the rise. Even with dozens of national and local awareness campaigns, the TPD regularly makes traffic stops to confront distracted drivers.
“There was a stop made just today for using an electronic device while driving,” he said.
“Distracted driving is any activity that is going to divert your attention from driving. Whether it’s talking on the phone, fiddling with your radio, eating, drinking, texting, anything that pulls your attention away from doing your primary job of driving.”
The statistics confirm Polson’s suspicion the number of cases of distracted driving is increasing across the country. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration labeled distracted driving a full-blown epidemic in 2016, and the numbers have grown since. According to Teensafe.com, a website the promotes safe driving for teenagers, 25 percent of all fatalities involving vehicles and 58 percent of all crashes involving teenagers can be attributed to distracted driving. Nine people die every day from distracted driving-related incidents.
In Polson’s opinion, it’s one of the most serious issues our country is facing when it comes to transportation.
“If it was just my opinion, I would say it is,” Polson said. “Texting or using your cell phone while driving. It’s such an issue now that Wyoming has created a statute for using an electronic device while driving.”
As a matter of fact, according to Teensafe, distracted driving is known in some circles as “the new drunk driving.” For teenagers, the number of alcohol-related fatalities has decreased – but the number of overall fatalities has not, which Teensafe attributes to distracted driving.
Teen drivers are the biggest target – but not the biggest problem, according to AT&T’s It Can Wait campaign, which helps spread the word about the dangers of distracted driving. The campaign conducted a survey of 1,100 adults, and half of them admitted to texting and while driving, compared to only 43 percent of teens.
Regardless of who is driving distracted, the issue is serious – and if people can’t be trusted to take it serious, law enforcement will.
“You’re going to pay the price”
The Wyoming legislature banned texting while driving in 2010 and, Polson said, it’s something local law enforcement officials are looking for while they are on patrol. A citation can earn a hefty fine, and Polson said it’s all in the interest of keeping people safe.
“If your eyes are down in your lap, if I see it, I’m going to make a stop,” he said. “Other officers are going to do the same thing. The biggest thing is just don’t do it. It’s not that important. I can sit here and preach all day long and so can those PSAs that have been out – put the cell phone down.
“Just don’t do it. That’s the bottom line. Just don’t do it or, if you’re caught, you’re going to pay the price for it.”
Polson said the TPD patrol officers make it a point to patrol along bus routes and near schools, and are actively searching for drivers who disregard the buses’ lights and signs.
“On that bus, when that sign comes out, you stop,” he said. “The drivers of the bus have a responsibility, also. They can’t throw their sign out and expect a car to stop on a dime. There has to be a little responsibility on their part, but if it’s out within reason, the vehicles have to stop.”
Goshen County school bus drivers are trained to be on the lookout for distracted drivers and to keep kids on the bus if the situation is uncertain, Bath said. That has prevented any incidents from happening in town so far, but it still doesn’t stop drivers from running the lights and signs.
“The drivers have always been able to spot the motorists and they don’t let the kids off the bus,” she said. “We’ve never had a really close call. It’s just been frustrating – the driver has come to a complete stop and the motorist has plenty of time to see that the bus that stopped, and they still run the reds. They just run right on through. Thank goodness we still have the kids and they’re not getting off yet.”
Bath said the state government has spent a large amount of money to ensure that each bus is equipped with front- and rear-facing cameras to record traffic. Those cameras, she said, can help bring offenders to justice.
“It does play a big part in helping us Identify those drive-bys,” she said.
Neither the GCSD nor the police can control what drivers do in their cars. But both have tried to take action by raising awareness of the dangers of distracted driving.
Bath said the district has tried to manipulate its bus routes as much as possible to eliminate the need for students to cross the street, and while that works on some rural routes, it’s nearly impossible to do in town.
“In town, just at any particular stop, we might have 10 children getting off and if I was going to drop off on the right side all the time, that bus would have to circle several blocks and it would take forever to drop off children in town,’ she said. “If we can do it, we do it, but it can’t be done every time just because of where students live in a particular area.”
Polson said there are methods motorists could take to potentially curb distracted driving.
“The biggest thing is just for people to educate themselves,” he said. “The last thing I want to see happen is for anyone to get injured.”
Polson said using a hands-free device or Bluetooth technology is a way people can use their phones while driving, but it’s not the best way.
“Bluetooth is a better option, but some people say you’re still distracted,” he said.
But Polson and Bath agree that there is one foolproof method of reducing the risk of an incident – removing the distraction.
“Put the cell phones down,” Polson said. “The best thing to do is just pull off the side of the road. That’s the best chance of you getting there alive and not having an accident with anyone else on the road.”