August 5, 2023

From the Vaults: Why S4SD?


     This fall, WOAS-FM will be applying for another $1000 grant co-sponsored by the State of Michigan and the Ford Motor Company.  Perhaps you have saw the gold and red ‘Strive for a Safer Drive – Don’t be Distracted’ banners adorning the ‘Welcome to Ontonagon’ signs at the village entry points on US 45 and M 38 before the Labor Day Festival banners went up.  These banners were from years 7 and 8 of this locally produced safe driving campaign.  This fall will mark the ninth consecutive year WOAS DJs and other volunteers will have applied to be part of this state-wide project.  Each year, the station DJs are informed they will be running this important Public Service Campaign through the station.  I ask them, “Why do you think we are still doing this every year?” and they always come up with the correct answer:  “Because people are still using their phones while driving.”  On June 3, 2023, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation into law making it illegal to use a cell phone or other mobile electronic device while operating a vehicle on Michigan roads.  This will no doubt stir some rumblings about the government interfering with our rights to live dangerously, but if I have learned anything from the previous eight locally run S4SD – DbD campaigns, I can only say, “It is about time.”

     The new law took effect on June 30, 2023 and states, “A driver cannot hold or support a phone or other device with any part of their hands, arms, or shoulders.”  According to a press release from the Michigan State Police (MSP), even if a cell phone or other device is mounted on your dashboard or connected to your vehicle’s built-in system, you cannot use your hands to operate it beyond a single touch.  The MSP website points out a driver cannot manually do any of the following on a cell phone or other electronic device while driving:  – Make or answer a telephone or video call, – Send or read a text or email message, – Watch, record, or send a video, – Access, read, or post to social media, ‘ Browse or use the Internet, – or enter information into GPS or a navigation system.

     In an interview with the Houghton Daily Mining Gazette,  MSP Trooper Alan Narhi from the Calumet Post said the new law updates the previous distracted driving law that was first enacted in 2010.  According to Trooper Narhi, “The previous distracted driving statute limited actions law enforcement agents could take regarding drivers distracted by cell phone use.  The previous law relied a lot on cooperation from the public.  This law is essentially Michigan becoming a hands-free state.  In other words, you can’t have an electronic device in your possession, at all, while you’re driving.”  Until we began taking part in the S4SD campaign, I never really paid much attention to what other people were doing while driving.  Once I began advising the DJs and volunteers who run the DbD program, phone use by drivers became a problem I couldn’t UN-see.  

     When I was learning to drive, both before and after I took the formal driver’s training course at school, my dad repeated the same ideas whenever I was behind the wheel:  “Make sure the only thing you have on your mind when operating a car is driving.  Driving is a full time occupation and your life depends on you paying attention.  Other people’s lives are also in your hands.  If you kill someone while driving, it will be with you forever.”  Once in a while, I would get to ride with dad with his radio-equipt unmarked police car (he was a detective in the 1960s).  I was always fascinated how he could pick up and key his mic and adjust the channel without ever taking his eyes off the road.  When asked about this, he simply said, “You get used to where everything is when you aren’t driving.  Once you are on the road, you can’t afford to look down at the radio.”  When he saw me installing a tape deck in my pickup truck when I was in college, he reminded me of the same thing:  you can’t take your eyes off the road while fiddling with your radio or tape player.  Remembering how he handled his police radio, I learned how to operate not only my tape deck, but all of my dash panel controls without having to look at them.

     Trooper Narhi told the Gazette’s Graham Jaehnig the new law gives officers a broader range of discretion, and therefore broader authority, in determining distracted driving:  “Under the previous law, distracted driving involving a cell phone was limited to sending, reading, or receiving a text message only.  You could be doing anything you wanted on your phone, and we would have no idea until we talk to you.”  The new law also makes cell phone use a primary violation which means it is based solely on an officer’s observations.  Narhi pointed out there are exceptions to the rule, for example, if a driver needs to call 911 to report an emergency, a crash, a traffic hazard, or a reckless driver, use of a cell phone is permitted.  “You can communicate on your phone if you can do it hands-free.”

     Narhi also noted the updated law stipulates drivers can not operate a cell phone or other device beyond a single touch:  “Most phones today have voice-command capacity.  If you’re using voice commands to your phone, that’s okay.”  It is also permissible to use a GPS unit while driving as long as one is not typing in destinations or coordinates while operating their vehicle.

The new law is also not limited to using a cell phone.  The site also lists eating, drinking, smoking, looking after pets or children, searching or reaching for items while driving (which includes adjusting climate or music controls), and listening to loud music as distracted driving activities.  “What we are getting at,” Narhi said, “is that those are distractions that can occur inside a vehicle.  Those are hazards that can cause distractions.”

     Trooper Narhi cited an example he had observed while working on a vehicle crash in the Copper Country in early July 2023.  While he was directing traffic at the scene, he witnessed more than one motorist aiming their phones out the window, snapping photos as they drove by the crash.  “It is this kind of carelessness the new law is aimed at curbing,” stated Narhi.

     The site provided statistics to back up the reason for the recent legislation.  According to an April 7, 2022 posting,  “ A 2020 fact sheet shows 5.8 percent of MIchigan  crashes involved a distracted driver.  There were 14,236 motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver in 2020, and 48 of those crashes resulted in a fatality.  A year later, those numbers had increased to 16,532 crashes with 59 resulting in a fatality.”

     Penalties for violating the new distracted driving laws are as follows:   First violation – $100 fine and/or 16 hours of community service.  Second  or subsequent violation – $250 fine and/or 24 hours of community service.  Three violations within a 3-year period – Complete a driving improvement course.  Fines are doubled if a traffic crash occurs and the at-fault driver was holding or manually using a mobile device while operating the vehicle, any civil fines will be doubled.

     While it is necessary for anyone who gets behind the wheel to understand the dangers involved in distracted driving, it is especially important for families with future (or young)  drivers.  Kids will model the behavior they see whether it comes from parents or older siblings.  Driving while performing hazardous tasks teaches kids that distracted driving only happens to others.  This behavior is wrong, dangerous, and is courting avoidable tragedy.  How does one teach the younger generation to not do something dangerous (and in this case, illegal) by acting like it can’t happen to me?   

     When a student is about to take a driver’s education class, they are warned to not be seen driving a motorized vehicle.  DE instructors are legally bound to not admit a student to class who is observed driving a motorized vehicle prior to taking the class.  Whether it is lack of awareness of this rule or a case of ‘oh, they don’t mean me’, bravado, a student arriving for class driving a golf cart, motor bike, or ATV is in for a rude surprise.  It has happened locally and unfortunately, the blame somehow got shifted to the organization sponsoring the DE class, not at the parents who let their unlicensed son or daughter drive a motorized vehicle without a license.

     FOMO is another concept that our future drivers must be made aware of.  ‘Fear of missing out’ is a known problem – people who hear the ping of an incoming text or phone call feel like they must respond immediately, even if they are driving.  If it is important enough you must answer it, pull over.  Even under the new law, you will not be cited for texting or talking while parked.  The banners the S4SD volunteers hang around the school remind everyone, “It can wait!”  Self driving vehicles have not been around long enough to provide many accident statistics.  Having already observed more than one person doing things they should not be doing while ‘driving’ (reading, calling, etc) while the car is on ‘autopilot’ sends a shiver up my spine. Why does this make me feel this new trend in driver safety will only make distracted driving seem less of a problem (“Hey, the car is driving, not me!”).

     A couple of more statistics provided by the S4SD program help underscore exactly why Michigan enacted the new distracted driving law:  1) Cell phone usage is highest among 16-24 year-old drivers.  2) Distracted drivers experience approximately a 35 percent decline in reaction time while driving, and 3) Distracted driving is responsible for more than half of teen crashes.

Education of all drivers coupled with the new hands free law enforcement efforts are the key to lowering the number of crashes and fatalities.  

     We emphasize the Don’t be Distracted message right down to the lower elementary level.  Why?  According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2019 statistics, more than 22,000 vehicle occupants were killed in crashes.  Toss in speeding (the most common hazardous action cited for the drivers age 15-20 involved in fatal crashes), and the low rate of teen drivers and passengers who wear their safety belts (49 percent of the young drivers killed in 2019 were not wearing their safety belts, with 3 out of 4 having been ejected from their vehicle), and education becomes even more important in sharing the message about distracted driving. 

     We always ask the younger kids, “Why are we teaching you about this when you are not old enough to drive?”  This question never fails to illicit the correct response, even from the youngest kids:  “Because we ride in cars!”  Less heartening is the show of hands we get when we ask, “Have you ever ridden in a car with someone who is talking or texting on their phone?”  Looking at a roomful of students adds even more meaning to the old saw, “If we even save one life by doing this program, it is more than worth the effort.”

     Applications for the Strive 4 a Safer Drive grants are processed in the fall with the actual program taking place between January and April.  Before the COVID pandemic, it was not unusual to see seventy school districts taking part across the state.  The post-pandemic lockdown numbers have typically been less than half of that number.  We would dearly love to announce ‘there will be no S4SD – DbD program run in Ontonagon this year’ because the problem has magically gone away.  Human nature tells us we will no doubt be running with S4SD as long as it is still sponsored because distracted driving is one of those behaviors that seem to be hard to crack.  WOAS-FM and the Ontonagon Area Schools aren’t the only Upper Peninsula schools that have run a S4SD campaign in the past, but we are the only district that has done a program every year since we joined.  Help us make a difference and do your part – don’t drive distracted.


Top Piece Video:  Sir Paul’s music has been used as our S4SAD – DbD theme, so here he is again!!