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What counts as distracted driving?

When it comes to distracted driving, many factors can be considered as distracting.

Pets are a distraction. Phones are a distraction. Eating is a distraction. Passengers are a distraction. The U.S. Department of Transportation defines distracted driving as any non-driving activity a person engages in that has the potential to distract them from the primary task of driving and increase the risk of crashing.

According to the U.S. DOT, driver distractions include using a cell phone and/or texting, eating and drinking, talking to passengers, grooming, reading, including maps, using a personal digital assistant or navigation system, watching a video, changing the radio station, CD, or MP3 player, and even loud music.

Over the years, we have heard about the no-texting law as it applies to driving over and over again. Yet, law enforcement still gets reports from drivers who see texting happening daily at intersections. I have also observed it many times, while in my personal car. I also took a call at the post about how a bicyclist was nearly hit by a motorist who was looking down at what appeared to be a phone.

According to a 2016 study by Michigan State University, the statewide cell phone use rate was 7.5% among drivers, and I believe this has increased over the past couple of years. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that, during daylight hours, more than 660,000 drivers are texting or manipulating an electronic device at any given daylight moment across the nation.

Under MCL 257.602B, it discusses the reading, typing, or sending a text message on a wireless two-way communications device. Under section (1), “… a person shall not read, manually type, or send a text message on a wireless 2-way communication device that is located in the person’s hand or in the person’s lap, including a wireless telephone used in cellular telephone service or personal communication service, while operating a motor vehicle that is moving on a highway or street in this state.”

An individual who violates MCL 257.602B is responsible for a civil infraction and shall be ordered to pay a civil fine of $100 for a first-time violation. A second or subsequent violation would be a $200 civil fine.

The above statute specifically covers the texting-and-driving issue, but what about all the other distractions mentioned, such as food, drinks, radio, and pets? Michigan does not have a specific law to cover each distraction. However, if the distraction results in a crash, there are several statues that can be used in the given incident.

A great example is the accident that took place recently on M-32 in Alpena, during which the driver was distracted by the dog on his lap and he ended up running into the vehicle in front of him. That driver was cited for failure to stop because of following too closely. Under MCL 257.643, it discusses the distance between vehicles. The statute talks about how “the operator of a motor vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent …” A person who violates that statue will be cited with a civil infraction.

Other statutes come into play besides the above if there is a distraction, including disregarding stop signs, improper lane use, failure to yield to pedestrians, improper turning, speeding, and many others, just depending on the specific actions of the driver while distracted.

The Michigan Department of Transportation has implemented several programs aimed at addressing distracted driving. Those include the statewide installation of centerline and shoulder rumble strips on high-speed, rural non-freeways. MDOT also has implemented other improvements, such as crash attenuators and cable median barrier systems to reduce the severity of drift-off crashes that may be caused by driver distraction.

By no means am I saying an officer is going to stop you for eating or drinking or even changing your radio station in the car. However, if an officer observes your behavior in the car to be a distraction while you are operating on a roadway, there is a good chance you will be stopped and talked to.

Ashley Simpson is a community service trooper for the Michigan State Police-Alpena Post. If you have a question for Trooper Simpson, you can email her at asktroopersimpson@gmail.com or mail them to Ask A Trooper, Michigan State Police-Alpena Post, 3283 W. Washington Ave., Alpena, Mich., 49707.