In the wreckage of the crash, police found Gabriela Torga’s phone on the floorboard of her SUV, near the accelerator.
Torga, 23, was driving alone just after 5 a.m. on March 19, 2017, headed east on Clay Road in Deerfield Village when she veered suddenly from the fast lane to the right shoulder. She tried to correct her path but pulled too far too fast. Even though the road was dry, she slid counter-clockwise, clipping the raised median and sending the Toyota 4Runner sideways before it slammed into a tree. as directly connected to her cellphone. Police can only say that when she crashed, the phone was on and open to SnapChat while she was going 55 mph in a 45 zone.
Other studies over the years have shown similar growth in cellphone use while driving by the region’s motorists, including an analysis by the Houston-Galveston Area Council. It found that distraction-related crashes grew 23 percent from 2012 through 2016.
In the nine-county Houston metropolitan area, the number of fatal and injury crashes in which distraction was identified as a likely cause jumped from 5,796 in 2011 to 8,211 in 2016, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of state crash records. Most of those resulted in minor injuries. During the same period, however, those killed or seriously injured increased from 509 to 735, according to crash data maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation.
Along with speeding and alcohol and drug impairment, safety officials say distracted driving is reaching epidemic levels, even if it is not being blamed for the bulk of the body count.
The question remains what drivers, police, automakers, safety advocates, and lawmakers can do — through technology, education or laws — to keep drivers focused on driving and to create a culture that condemns many popular roadway pastimes.
“I feel very certain as a society we will get to a point to say it is not acceptable,” said Deborah Hersman, president of the National Safety Council. “We’re not there yet. It takes time. I certainly remember ashtrays everywhere at work and in restaurants, and now we know.”
Still, the issue has taken a back seat to other matters in Texas, one of the last states to ban texting while driving. Even then, lawmakers carved out a host of exceptions that allow drivers to use their phones in other ways behind the wheel.
Many police and sheriff departments, meanwhile, do not actively enforce the ban.
“It’s a very hard case to prove,” Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne said. “And I personally don’t want my deputies to write tickets on anything they can’t 100 percent swear on the fact the person was committing a violation of law.”
The problem of distracted driving is as old as the automobile. Cellphones get the bulk of the blame of late, but safety experts say a range of features and pastimes — from stereos to food to the seemingly endless variety of gauges, indicators and dashboard displays — can present a danger. Sometimes the distraction is not even inside the vehicle; roadside vistas or startling scenes draw drivers’ attention away from the lanes ahead. As long as people have passengers or the propensity to daydream, drivers will always have something else on their minds.
The issue has particular relevance in Houston and Texas, where cars are personal and sacred spaces, in part because of how much time drivers spend in them. The average one-way commute in the Houston area is nearly 30 minutes, and it is not uncommon for workers to spend an hour or more in the car each morning and evening.
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So drivers pass the time as pleasantly or as usefully as they can. They listen to music or podcasts. They make work or personal phone calls. They eat and drink. During the morning commute, drivers can check their rear-view mirrors and see a man making last-minute hair fixes or a woman applying makeup. Many are doing multiple things at once, such as smoking a cigarette while holding their phone while reaching to turn down the radio or grab a sip of coffee.
All of it adds up to distraction. Safety experts have zeroed in on cellphones, mostly because the devices have become ubiquitous in everyday life. Most drivers, however, have not yet adjusted, or learned when to put them down:
⬛ DriversEd.com, an online driving school that tracks and surveys driver habits, found in its 2018 distracted driving survey that 11 percent of drivers keep typing even when they are moving at posted speeds. Another 8 percent admitted to watching video sites, such as YouTube, while driving.
⬛ Root Insurance, which tracks policy holders as part of its pricing, found in a survey that 19 percent of American drivers say they cannot drive more than 30 minutes without checking their phones.
⬛ When Envista Forensics, which investigates insurance claims, asked drivers how they justified driving distracted, 20 percent said they could multi-task, despite reams of studies noting motorists lose needed focus when attempting any other activity.