By ERIC TICHY
Special to the OBSERVER
Text message alert. One new voicemail. New email received.
When it comes to motor vehicle crashes in Chautauqua County, driver inattention and distraction ranks No. 1 as a contributing factor. In a report by Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research that tracked driving data from 2009-11, nearly 500 of the 2,300 crashes on average cited distracted driving as a factor.
Advances in cellphones and other devices are one reason for the increasing number of avoidable crashes, local police officials say.
"During the past several years, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of electronic devices, in particular cellular telephones," said Sgt. Gary Segrue, station commander for State Police at Jamestown. "While these electronic devices have added many benefits and conveniences to our busy lives, there are negative impacts as well."
Leading crash factors
A study in 2011 in Chautauqua County showed the following factors of crashes:
Distracted driving: 21.2 percent
Failure to yield: 13.6 percent
Unsafe speed: 11.1 percent
Following too closely: 8.9 percent
Passing violation: 5.6 percent
Unsafe backing: 4.7 percent
Alcohol involvement: 4.5 percent
Failure to keep right: 3.7 percent
All others: 7.8 percent
Talking on cell phones
A 2012 national Highway Safety Study asked drivers the following question:
How often do you talk on the phone while driving?
Always: 3 percent
Most of the time: 6.2 percent
Sometimes: 27.3 percent
Rarely: 28 percent
Never: 35.5 percent
Segrue said cellphone use while driving has been problematic for several years, and noted smart phones are now widely used. Driver distraction, primarily through cellphones, tops leading causes for personal injury and property damage crashes, he said.
"Despite the efforts of law enforcement and the recent change adding three points to each cellphone and electronic device usage while driving, use of mobile electronics devices continues to increase," he said.
According to state law, it is illegal to hold an electronic device while driving and: compose, send, read and browse websites. Talking, playing games and sending images is illegal as well.
Penalties, Segrue said, can include a fine up to $150 and three points on a driver's license. He noted, though, that the law does not penalize drivers using an electronic device - including GPS - that is attached to a vehicle surface. Calls placed during an emergency are permitted as well.
The Lakewood-Busti Police Department also has seen an increase in motor vehicle crashes as a result of distracted driving, Sgt. Paul Gustafson said. Most of the distractions come from talking or texting on cellphones, he said.
But other distractions are there.
"Driving while eating or drinking, or pets in the driver's lap for example," Gustafson said. "Not to mention children fighting in the back seat and the drivers turned around."
"This problem is not just a local problem," he said. "It can be seen across the country."
Segrue highlighted two recent crashes in Chautauqua County that involved distracted driving. On May 25, an Ashville resident, Jesse Szablewski, was attempting to turn into a residence on Route 395 in North Harmony. Another vehicle, operated by a Jamestown woman, struck Szablewski and forced her vehicle into oncoming traffic.
Szablewski, who fractured her left arm in the crash, said she and her 11-year-old son were taken to Westfield Memorial Hospital; her 4-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son also were in the vehicle, but did not sustain injuries.
"My two younger children by the grace of God were cleared by the emergency medical technicians on the scene," Szablewski said.
The Jamestown woman who caused the crash was charged with following too closely, and told State Police she briefly took her eyes off the road to grab a drink located in the center console. The crash sent six people to the hospital in all, Segrue said.
A Lakewood woman was charged on June 9 after striking a vehicle in front of her in the town of Gerry. The woman, who later was charged with driving while intoxicated after providing a breath sample of .21 percent, told police she was texting and didn't notice the vehicle in front of her was stopping. The male driver of the other vehicle was transported to WCA Hospital for neck pain.
In a 2012 Highway Safety annual report, half of all drivers questioned admitted to sending or receiving a text message while driving; 5 percent of motorists said they texted while driving most of the time. More than 64 percent, meanwhile, said they talked on the phone while behind the wheel.
"As law enforcement officials it is our duty to enforce the vehicle and traffic laws that are in place and to keep our roadways as safe as possible," Gustafson said. "Everyone travels on our roadways; everyone is busy in life, but it is important to remember that it only takes a second to change someone's life forever."