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Local, state highway officials warn of dangers of distracted driving

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — With the increasing use of technology in our everyday lives, local and state highway safety officials are using Distracted Driving Awareness Month in April to educate the public about the dangers of driving with incomplete focus on the road.

Aroostook County saw a total of 83 crashes resulting from distracted driving in 2017, with four of those crashes resulting in serious injuries but no fatalities, according to the Maine Department of Transportation’s Presque Isle office. In Maine, 3,488 crashes were connected to distracted driving, with 14 fatalities and 83 serious injuries reported.

“The message is simple: just focus on the road,” Dwane Brunell, safety manager for the Maine DOT in Presque Isle, said. “Things happen so quickly that you can’t let any activity or mental attention be taken away from the road.”

Brunell noted that many distracted driving crashes likely go unreported every year because some individuals involved do not want to admit that they took their eyes off the road.

“If we asked the general public what they thought about distracted driving, most people would agree that it’s not OK. But then if you ask, ‘Do you ever drive distracted?’ a lot of people will answer, ‘Yes,’” Brunell said.

Though texting or talking on the phone while driving remains a primary concern for safety officials, new technology available on the dashboard of cars also has proven a risk factor. The National Safety Council estimates that 50 percent of drivers who use hands-free phones installed in cars or bluetooth devices suffer from “inattention blindness,” meaning that they look at certain objects such as other cars, streetlights, road signs and pedestrians, but they don’t see them.

For these reasons, the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety has partnered with the Maine DOT, state law enforcement and AAA New England for the April 2018 “Just Drive New England” campaign. The TV and radio public service announcement features law enforcement officers from all six New England states, who encourage drivers to get rid of any technological distractions and simply focus on the task of driving.

During the campaign, the highway safety bureau also will provide more than $800,000 to Maine law enforcement departments across the state to enforce distracted driving laws.

“If you’re engaging in any activity that takes your thought process off driving, like switching the radio channel or pressing a GPS button, it takes your brain 27 seconds to completely refocus on driving,” said Lauren Stewart, director of the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety. “We want to challenge people to put their phones away, even if they have to put it in the back seat or lock it in their dashboard or give it to a family member. If they can drive undistracted for the month of April, then they can also do so during other times.”

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