Each year, distracted driving causes about a quarter of all car accidents in the United States, the National Safety Council reports. In 2015 alone, 3,477 people were killed and another 391,000 were injured in distraction-related crashes, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealed.
In an effort to help curb such statistics locally, the Red Bank Police Department is expanding its new distracted driving prevention
program, offering to make presentations in schools, companies,
churches and communities all throughout the Chattanooga area.
Late last month, an officer from the department spoke to Hamilton County's Advisory Council on Traffic Safety.
While texting is often the culprit in distracted driving incidents, Sgt. Rusty Aalberg reminded ACTS meeting attendees that cellphones aren't the only danger. Any activity that takes commuters' attention away from the act of driving is considered a distraction, he said. That includes eating or drinking, applying make-up or adjusting on-board entertainment systems like the radio while behind the wheel.
"I see it every day," said ACTS Chairman Chester Bankston, who also represents District 9 on the Hamilton County Commission. "It's not just a few people; it's all of us. We need to really look at what we're doing when we're driving a motor vehicle that could kill somebody instantly. We need to do better."
Aalberg started the safety program in February after receiving a grant from the Tennessee Highway Safety Office. He applied for the Governor's Highway Safety Office Grant in 2016 after examining Red Bank police records and realizing that of the 495
crashes the department investigated that year, at least 41 of them — or nearly 10 percent — were distraction-related, a trend he later found had been consistent over the last few years.
"Right now, that far outweighs how many crashes we have related to alcohol and drugs and that's just what we do know," Aalberg said. "Typically, it's going to be much higher than that because not everyone's going to tell us they were not paying attention to the roadway."
The program focuses on enforcement and education. With money from the grant, the department funds the overtime for officers on patrol for distracted drivers. Sometimes, the officers watch from nondescript vans or other undercover positions to stop those texting or otherwise distracted, though not everyone pulled over gets a citation.
"You may get a lecture. You may get some pamphlets," Aalberg said. "It's not the police department trying to get in people's pockets. We're trying to educate people and keep people safe on these roadways, because there are too many people dying in distraction-related crashes."
Though the presentation is geared toward high school students, Aalberg said it is just as important for adults, and a representative from Kenco Transportation expressed interest in having him speak to its truck drivers at an upcoming safety meeting.
"I think it's a great program that he's got started," Bankston said. "I would like to see our Sheriff's Department do something like that and make everybody aware of how bad distracted driving is."
Since beginning the program, Aalberg said he has seen the number of distraction-related accidents in Red Bank slide "just a shade lower," but added that he won't know its true impact until the final numbers are released later this year.
Still, Aalberg said he has seen fewer drivers texting while on the road, which he hopes is a result of the growing awareness of its dangers.
"If, through our educational efforts and through our enforcement efforts, we save or modify one person's driving behavior or save one life, then we've won," Aalberg said. "In the end, that's what it's all about: saving lives, making sure people are safe on the roadways."
If interested in having him present on the dangers of distracted driving, contact Aalberg at 875-0167, ext. 2104.