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Today is January 22, 2019

Y’all be careful out there

Law enforcement officers work hard to prevent traffic accidents, but drivers are equally responsible for making Mississippi’s roadways safer.

By Debbie Stringer

Y’all be careful out there

Mississippi Highway Patrol Capt. John Poulos

Among the momentos displayed in Mississippi Highway Patrol Capt. John Poulos’ office is a laminated newspaper clipping about a high school student who walked away from a severe crash, only because he had been wearing a seat belt.

Poulos had just given a seat belt safety presentation at the student’s school. He showed the teens a video with graphic pictures of unbelted crash victims ejected from their vehicle and killed.

With the disturbing images fresh on his mind, the young driver decided to buckle up before heading home one night. Then a deer darted in front of his truck.

“He lost control and flipped the truck numerous times,” Poulos said. “But until he saw that presentation, he never wore a seat belt.”

Most people who die in traffic accidents are not belted. Seat belts cannot prevent all fatalities but it is estimated that fatalities are reduced 50 to 65 percent when safety belts are used, according to the Mississippi Office of Highway Safety (MOHS). Seat belt use is required by law in Mississippi.

Other major contributors to traffic fatalities and serious injury in Mississippi include alcohol-impaired driving, distracted driving and speeding.

MOHS says an average of 621.8 traffic fatalities occurred in Mississippi each year from 2011 to 2015.

In 2016 there were 690 fatalities on Mississippi roadways, the Mississippi Department of Transportation reports.

“People can help [reduce] those fatality numbers and the number of crashes we investigate by just making good decisions when they’re driving,” Poulos said.

As director of MHP’s public affairs division, he oversees the agency’s statewide efforts to make roadways safer by increasing driver awareness. “We have a hard job out there, trying to educate the public about saving their own life,” Poulos said.

Distracted driving ranks high on his list of traffic sins.

“The biggest thing we fight as a law enforcement agency is people’s mentality when it comes to distracted driving. I don’t think people associate the consequences of texting while driving the same way they do with impaired driving,” Poulos said.

People who would never drink and drive think little of texting while driving, the trooper pointed out. Yet both can lead to a deadly crash.

Teenagers are especially susceptible to distractions while behind the wheel. Research has found that dialing a phone number while driving increases a teen driver’s risk of crashing by six times, and texting while driving increases the risk by 23 times, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

One NHTSA study found that almost 80 percent of crashes and 60 percent of near-crashes involved drivers who were not paying attention to traffic for up to three seconds before the crash occurred—less time than it takes to send a text.

The phone isn’t the only distraction. Other passengers, eating food or applying makeup while driving, and staring at an accident scene can result in serious injury or death, especially for the inexperienced driver.

Research shows that the risk of a fatal crash goes up in direct relation to the number of teenagers in the car.

Minor crashes, too—running off the road or bumping into the back of another car—are becoming more numerous due to distracted driving.

Poulos took part in an MHP study conducted a few years ago in Oxford, where officers in an unmarked car watched for erratic vehicle action that indicated a distracted driver. If the driver was using a phone, the officers radioed for a marked patrol vehicle to pull him over. The team made more than 50 traffic stops in an hour and a half.

Law enforcement officers can stop a vehicle that weaves or veers from a lane for any reason. “We can write you a ticket for careless or reckless driving,” Poulos said.

On a recent drive from the coast to Jackson on U.S. 49, Poulos pulled over four drivers for speeding. “It amazes me that people will drive 80 and 85 miles an hour in a 65 zone,” he said.

Good driving is a matter of simply “following the rules, staying awake and not hitting anyone,” Tom Vanderbilt writes in his book “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do.”

Vanderbilt argues that because Americans drive on such well-engineered highways, we forget we are moving at high speeds. Driving is “actually an incredible, complex and demanding task ... the full scope of which scientists are just beginning to understand.”

We are so practiced at driving that it becomes automated and our minds wander—the so-called “highway hypnosis.”

“How many times have you been driving and passed things that you don’t even remember passing? That’s our problem as adults. We have a lot on our mind,” Poulos said.

To make matters worse, drivers may let down their guard in the comfort of their big, heavy SUV. Vanderbilt says evidence reveals that SUV drivers tend to drive faster and more aggressively because they feel safer.

Studies have shown that drivers of small cars tend to take fewer risks, as judged by speed, distance to the vehicle ahead and seat belt use.

For teens just learning to drive, the extreme multitasking involved in operating a vehicle safely can be daunting. Poulos encourages parents to take their child to a safe location to practice handling the vehicle, and to set a good example with their own driving habits—including buckling up.

Parents should also stress to their teen the life-saving benefits of defensive driving.

“What students need to realize today is that it’s not about how good a driver they are, it’s how bad the other drivers are out there,” Poulos said.

Learning the mechanics of driving is easy. Understanding the consequences of careless driving is the hard lesson.

In 2016, speeding was a factor in 32 percent of the fatal crashes in the US that involved teens in passenger vehicles, according to NHTSA.

“[Parents] need to make sure teenagers understand that a car can take their life. It can take other people’s lives too,” Poulos said.

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