Hot Hands Free

Distracted driving has become a growing health hazard for teenage and young adult drivers who seemingly cannot bear to let one text message or cell phone call go unanswered.

April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and police officers in the Valley, Los Angeles county and statewide are focusing their attention on illegal cell phone usage among drivers.

So is the medical profession.

Three professionals from the Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills— trauma surgeon Dr. Reza Kermani and nurses Melissa Barnes and Christian Diance who also work in trauma units — came to San Fernando High School on Wednesday, April 5, to talk with students about the dangers of distracted driving.

“It only takes one bad choice — one second — and it might not even be your choice. But in that one second everything changes,” Barnes told the senior physiology class taught by instructor Selma Duran.

Barnes said she too often sees young people brought into the emergency room and trauma center injured from drunk or distracted driving accidents and “it can be pretty devastating. A lot of times lives are lost, or a life is ruined forever.”

Diance, who grew up in Pacoima and currently lives in Sylmar, added that many young drivers don’t think a traumatic accident can happen to them.

“It’s usually when they start to wake up,” Diance said. “They say ‘what happened to me,’ look at their injuries. And we tell them ‘maybe you think you’re invincible, maybe because you’re 18 nothing can happen.’ But trauma doesn’t just affect the patient. It affects so many people around you. I think a lot of people fail to see that.”

"In an auto collision, depending on the speed of the impact, a person or persons could be killed or sustain severely damaged internal organs, and broken bones,"  Kermani said.

“It’s mostly from the impact of the collision itself. But it can also be from the [passenger] area being so small.  What really tells me about the possible injury is how long it took to extricate the patient from the car. If the patient had a prolonged extraction, those are usually the ones at the most risk.”

At best, distracted driving is against the law. At worst, it can have deadly consequences.

 “It’s everywhere these days,” said Officer Dave Galbraith, a nine-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol “And it’s only growing with the need or desire to check every notification that we receive on our cellphones.”

“We as drivers have become so comfortable with technology, that we feel we can drive safely while still being connected to technology like we were at home.”

Galbraith noted the 101 and 405 freeway interchange can be a hotbed of collisions

“Because traffic is always slow, people feel more confident to take their eyes off the road,” the officer said. “And many of the traffic collisions we see are because a lot of people don’t notice that traffic can abruptly stop every couple of seconds.”

Distracted driving is defined as any activity that diverts attention from driving, including talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking to people in your vehicle, fiddling with the stereo, entertainment or navigation system—anything that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving.

The state Office of Traffic Safety is working with the California Highway Patrol and other community partners throughout the state, and all are spreading the word that distracted driving is a growing problem among California's motorists.

There is a growing database to back them up.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), using data collected in 2015, said 3,477 people were killed and another 391,000 were injured in accidents involving distracted drivers — a 9 percent increase compared to the previous year.

NHTSA considers texting to be the most risky distraction. 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.

The National Safety Council — using data collected from the National Center for Health Statistics, an arm of the CDC — estimated that 40,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2016, a 6 percent increase from 2015 and a 14 percent increase above 2014. That was the largest two-year escalation since 1964.

The Valley Traffic Division office in Panorama City does not specifically track distracted driving accidents. But the 568 total Valley area accidents in 2017 — through March 18 — were only slightly less that the 571 Valley area accidents investigated in the same time period last year.

Some of the more dangerous intersections in the Northeast Valley identified by the LAPD as being at risk for accidents include Foothill Boulevard and Maclay Street, Glenoaks and Van Nuys boulevards, and Glenoaks and Foothill boulevards.

A new state law that went into effect Jan. 1 requires all California drivers to keep their cell phones out of their hands when operating a motor vehicle. Under the new law, drivers may activate or deactivate a feature or function of a cell phone or other mobile communication device by swiping or tapping only if the device is properly mounted and not held in the driver’s hand.

Which means just about all hand-held cell phone activity while driving is now illegal, from talking to texting to using apps.

Which is fine with medical workers like Diance.

“We would rather see you become trauma doctors and nurses,” he said, “instead of being trauma patients.”

City News Service contributed to this report.

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