Personal experience with traumatic injuries in a distracted-driving car accident led Nicole Allensworth to testify in support of a bill creating a hands-free cellphone policy for Kansas drivers. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — In 2015, Nicole Allensworth was texting and driving in a construction zone when she over-corrected, resulting in a two-vehicle crash that ended up causing her a traumatic brain injury.
Before the crash, Allensworth, a 45-year-old single parent, attended Johnson County Community College and worked part-time to provide for her daughters. She spent 27 days in the hospital and went through therapy for four years because of the injury.
A bill under consideration in the Kansas Senate Transportation Committee would create a hands-free cellphone policy for Kansas drivers under 18, plus all drivers in a construction zone or school zone during designated hours.
“I understand and acknowledge the increase in distracted driving and the harm it can cause not only to the driver but to everyone else in the crash,” Allensworth told legislators on the Senate panel Tuesday. “I’m also aware of the ripple effects it causes not only to family but also to friends, for I have lost the connection with both due to my car crash.”
Law enforcement, car companies, medical professionals and advocacy groups joined Allensworth in support of the bill creating the new traffic infraction. Kansas would join 24 states as well as Washington, D.C., if legislators and the governor approve the bill
Nine of the states with hands-free laws on the books approved these measures since 2018. In Georgia, fatalities are down 7% in the 18 months since the law took effect, with an estimated 150 lives saved.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes three main types of distraction: visual (taking eyes off the road), manual (taking hands off the wheel), and cognitive (taking the mind off driving),” said Ann Buckland, with trauma services at Stormont Vail Health. “Handheld mobile phone use results in all three types of distraction.”
A violation of the proposed cellphone law would result in a $60 fine.
Law enforcement officers or emergency services personnel would be exempt, and there are certain exemptions for two-way radios. Hands-free use of mobile phones or use when parked would be legal.
The Kansas Department of Transportation estimates 15,000 crashes annually are caused by distracted driving. Ed Klumpp, a lobbyist representing the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police, the Kansas Sheriff’s Association, and the Kansas Peace Officers Association, said this represented about 19% of all traffic crashes in 2019.
“Failing to give full time/attention to driving was the top contributor to Kansas traffic crashes in 2019,” Klumpp said. “We know that even when cellphone use is the distraction, either with phone calls or texting, it is not always identified in crashes.”
The National Conference of State Legislatures estimated that at any given time during daylight hours, more than 800,000 people are driving a vehicle while using a handheld device. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that distractions led to more than 3,100 fatal accidents in 2017.
“More than a decade of research indicates that using mobile or smartphone while driving causes the brain to shift between two tasks, which slows reaction time and narrows our field of vision,” said Jason Wetzel, regional state government relations for General Motors. “Distracted drivers, while engaged in the behavior, exhibit similar behaviors to drunk drivers including slow reaction times, erratic speeds, weaving and sudden braking.”
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