Make the Choice to Buckle Up, Put the Phone Down

When we wake up in the morning, it is safe to say that no one is consciously electing to be involved in a fatal crash that day. As one picks between which pair of pants to wear, or makes a selection from the breakfast menu, he or she isn’t deliberately preparing for that moment when they must check the box, yes or no, to decide to be in fatal crash today. However, what we must come to understand is that our daily decisions can and do impact the possibility we will do just that. Our choices behind the wheel matter. Two simple steps we as drivers can all take to dramatically improve our chances of not being involved in a fatal traffic accident are buckling our seat belts and putting our phones down.

As Missouri recently recognized the fourth annual Buckle Up Phone Down Day on October 16th, we at the Northeast Missouri Regional Planning Commission want to encourage everyone that reads this to take the challenge. Go to https://www2.modot.org/BuckleUpPhoneDown/ and take the challenge to always buckle your seat belt and always put down your phone while driving.

Did you know that if everyone wore their seat belt, every time they got in a vehicle, it is estimated that 240 fewer Missourians would die as a result of fatal vehicle crashes this year alone? Just to put that in perspective, our small rural northeast Missouri school districts have an average high school enrollment of less than 200.

While an estimated 86.1% of Missourians are wearing their seat belts on a regular basis in 2020, 69% of the state’s fatalities in crashes are unbuckled. Really hitting home in rural communities like ours is the data that shows that 82% of fatalities in pick-up truck crashes are not wearing seat belts.

While we would all agree that pulling the seat belt across your body but failing to click it into place would be pointless, nearly as big a disconnect occurs when it comes to cell phones. We know they are not safe to use while driving, but we still will not put them down.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) distracted driving resulted in 2,841 fatalities nationwide in 2018 alone. Texting while driving is a major problem. While efforts like the Buckle Up Phone Down initiative have helped lower the number of distracted driver fatalities in Missouri from 102 in 2015 to 71 in 2019, that is still far too many. As NHTSA so aptly illustrates “Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed.”

A recent poll revealed that while 96% of Missourians think that texting while driving is unsafe, nearly 30% still admitted to doing it. Furthermore, other studies revealed those poll takers may not have been truly forthcoming in admitting their recklessness, as recent data from AT&T revealed nine out of 10 drivers engage in some form of smart phone usage while behind the wheel.

Missouri does have a texting ban on drivers under the age of 21, because this is a youth problem, right? Well not according to the data. Would you be surprised to learn that 87% of fatalities involving distracted drivers were people over the age of 21?

Just in case you still are on the fence regarding legislating personal freedoms, consider the fact that these choices are not simply impacting the individual driver. In 54% percent of the fatal accidents attributed to a distracted driver, someone other than the driver was killed.

Missouri remains one of just two states in America without a prohibition on texting while driving for all drivers and the Show-Me State is in the minority of states that do not have a “hands-free” law getting phones completely out of drivers’ hands. That is despite data that shows that 12 of 15 states that passed such laws saw significant declines in the number of related traffic crashes within two years. As a matter of fact, according to the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety, states that implemented such laws have seen an average decrease in fatal accidents of 15%.

The Missouri Department of Transportation is hoping to fix these roadway safety concerns with its 2021 legislative agenda. Two of MoDOT’s top priorities for lawmakers are a call to prohibit handheld cell phones and electronic devices while driving and a primary seat belt law. A Missouri law passed in 2009 prohibits drivers 21 years of age and younger from texting while driving. MoDOT is calling on lawmakers to extend that prohibition to all drivers. A total of 48 states prohibit texting while driving for all drivers – Missouri and Montana are the only two states that do not.

MoDOT is also calling for the creation of a primary seat belt law that would allow a law enforcement officer to stop a driver solely for failure to wear their seat belt if the violation is clearly visible to the officer. Missouri currently has a secondary enforcement law, meaning law enforcement must have stopped a driver for some other violation in order to also cite the driver for not wearing their seat belt.

Regardless of where you fit in on the political spectrum of this legislative debate, it should be quite simple to determine which side of the life or death question you want to end up on. We encourage everyone to pick life, and to consciously click that seat belt every time you enter a vehicle and to always refrain from electronic device usage while driving. Remember, Buckle Up Phone Down.