Police, lawmakers seek solutions as distracted driving deaths climb

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News
Jim Freybler of Grand Rapids has campaigned for tougher laws against texting and driving since his son, Jacob, was killed in 2014 in a crash as he texted a friend.

When conversation turns to distracted driving, Michigan law enforcement officials say they are concerned and frustrated.

Take Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, for instance. A former state lawmaker, Bouchard voiced his objections nearly a decade ago when a bill addressing distracted driving was winding its way through the process in Lansing.

Under the law, a motorist who is found to be texting while driving can be fined $100 for a first offense and $200 for repeat violations.

But the law’s language was too complicated and unenforceable, Bouchard said.

“It is not working — I doubt we have ever used it,” the sheriff said. “Nine years later, how many lives have been lost because a law was too specific to be enforced?”

That number is climbing, according to statistics from the Michigan State Police and a  traffic safety agency.

The state police reported 20,115 crashes in Michigan involving distracted driving in 2017, including 72 fatalities — the highest numbers ever recorded. Last year, the state had 77 deaths and 7,213 injuries resulting from distracted-driving crashes, according to data from the Transportation Improvement Association.

“It's difficult to say what impact distracted driving legislation has had," said Robert Stevenson, a retired Livonia police chief who is executive director of the Michigan Association of Police Chiefs.

“Our association is behind efforts to get appropriate tools to officers to address distracted driving,” he said.

State lawmakers are trying to address the issue. 

State Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, has introduced a bill that would expand the state’s texting-while-driving law to ban drivers from using all portable electronic devices except for those that are "hands free.”

Repeat violators could have one point assessed on their driver’s license for a second violation and two points for each subsequent violation, in addition to a ticket.

Another distracted-driving related bill, sponsored by state Rep. Mari Manoogian, D-Birmingham, would ban any driver under the age of 18 from using a cell phone while driving. It is part of a package of driving-related bills currently in committee.

State Rep. Mari Manoogian wants to ban drivers under age 18 from cell phone use behind the wheel.

“Distracted driving has become real danger to all drivers in Michigan, and the current laws simply do not do enough to address the many behaviors causing the rise in accidents among our young people,” Manoogian said in a statement this month.

In her bill, cell phone use is defined as the act of initiating a call, answering a call or engaging in verbal communication through a phone. The law would not apply to motorists reporting accidents or other emergencies.

The package of bills includes legislation banning drivers from reading emails or sending messages via social media apps. Penalties would range from $100 to $250 for a first violation to $200 to $500 for a second violation.

U.S. Department of Transportation studies have shown that drivers who use a handheld device are four times more likely to get into a crash serious enough to cause injury. Texting drivers are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash.

James Freybler of Grand Rapids knows the pain that can result from a distracted-driving crash. His 17-year-old son, Jacob, died in a head-on collision with another motorist in June 2014 while texting a message to a friend.

“Jacob was on his way home from a date,” said Freybler. “I had talked to him a couple hours earlier and he said he would be home at 11 (p.m.).

That came and went. Then midnight. And shortly before 1 a.m., a sheriff’s deputy was at Freybler’s door, telling him his son had been in an accident.

“Since then, I have spoken to kids at schools, at church and at all kinds of meetings,” said Freybler. “There are tears. I carry Jacob’s cellphone, which survived the crash — not a scratch. I tell kids they probably don’t think the same thing could happen to them in just a few seconds. But if they could talk to my son, they would know different. But they can’t.”

Freybler is an advocate for banning all hand-held phone use by drivers, which he believes could save countless lives.

“If I can just reach one person and get them to think twice about texting while driving, I feel I have accomplished something, maybe spared one parent from going through what I have.”  

As Bouchard and others see it, it's difficult to prove someone’s texting caused them to get into a crash. And there are many other ways to be distracted besides texting, he said.

Sheriff Michael Bouchard

“When I was on the road (as a police officer), I ticketed people for a variety of things,” Bouchard said. “A guy reading his newspaper over his steering wheel. A woman applying her mascara.

“One guy was driving along eating Chicken McNuggets, dipping into different sauces he had spread out on his car seat,” said Bouchard. “Every time he glanced down, he would weave out of his lane or take his eyes off the road. You can’t do that.”

Jim Santilli, chief executive officer of the Traffic Improvement Association, agrees police need help. Michigan’s texting law requires an officer to see a driver typing on his or her phone to document a violation.

In many cases, if a cited driver denies the activity in court and the officer cannot prove it occurred, chances are good the charge will be dismissed.

Faced with such situations, officers sometimes write tickets for other violations that occurred in the incident: improper lane use; disobeying a traffic signal, or careless driving, which carries a three-point penalty on a driving record. 

Stevenson said patrol officers face other obstacles in proving that a driver was texting, such as deeply tinted windows.

“How can an officer be expected to determine what’s happening inside a vehicle if he or she can’t see inside?” he asked.

Grand Blanc Township Police Chief Ron Wiles said his department put additional officers out in April as part of Distracted Driver Month and made about a dozen stops but wrote no citations for distracted driving.

“I think we all agreed that motorists need to give their full attention to driving and cell phones and technology, like texting, have made that more of a challenge and presented hazards to everyone on the roads,” said Wiles. “The texting and driving legislation is very restrictive and difficult to prove in court. Certainly well intended, but more is needed.”

Wiles would like Michigan to adopt some form of “hands free” legislation that have been enacted in 18 other states which makes it illegal for drivers to be handling their phones behind the wheel.

“That would be a step in the right direction if we are going to be serious about distracted driving,” he said.

There are several efforts underway.

The TIA spearheaded an “Operation Ghost Rider” program with eight police agencies seeking to identify distracted drivers on busy M-59, between Interstate 75 and I-94. Over a 12-hour period April 25, 22 officers stopped 300 vehicles, issued 295 citations and made five arrests.

Santilli said while the TIA does not support a full ban on cell phone use, it recognizes the current Michigan texting law is “too specific to texting and is extremely difficult to enforce."