The Memorial Day death of a Zebulon woman has renewed calls for drivers to put down their electronic devices when they are behind the wheel. Despite laws on the books that prohibit such activities as texting while driving, law enforcement officials say it’s only likely to get worse.
“It’s a problem, and it’s a problem that’s going to continue to grow because unfortunately people are going to keep doing it,” N.C. Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Jeff Gordon said.
On Monday about 6 a.m. along U.S. 64 near Debnam Road in Zebulon, the highway patrol says Judy Claybourne, 53, of Zebulon, died after the van she was driving was struck from behind by a GMC Envoy driven by Erik Christian Hicks, 42, of Knightdale.
Investigators say Hicks admitted to texting when the wreck happened. Claybourne’s husband, Darryl, and her daughter, Ameerah Godwin, a student at East Wake High School, were transported to WakeMed. Darryl Claybourne was released from the hospital Tuesday. Godwin remains hospitalized in fair condition.
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The wreck happened after the Claybournes had pulled off the roadway to change drivers. Judy Claybourne had just reentered the travel lane and was getting up to highway speed when the wreck occurred.
Darryl Claybourne on Wednesday said the family was just about two miles from home on a return trip from Philadelphia when the incident took place.
“Nobody should be doing that,” he said of texting while driving. “I always said that. I don’t even like people talking on the phone while they’re driving around. This is what happens when you do that.”
Hard to enforce
Legislators passed the ban on texting while driving in 2009, labeling it an infraction and tacking on a $100 fine plus court costs.
But the statute banning the act makes it difficult to enforce for what Gordon said are about 8 million registered cars and 4 million licensed drivers statewide.
“The way the statute is written, you have a caveat to where basically (drivers) are able to look up a phone number while a vehicle is in motion,” he said. “So as an officer, you have to be able to decide whether or not a person is texting as opposed to looking up a phone number.”
Through a Selective Traffic Enforcement Program, the Zebulon Police Department assigns an officer to increase the presence of law enforcement in areas identified for high volumes of wrecks, violations or complaints on a rotating schedule.
Stepping up enforcement, however, does not make spotting the offense any easier, according to Zebulon police Chief Tim Hayworth.
“After a case of an accident, you can go back and get copies of the phone records and prove it that way,” Hayworth said, “but an officer actually has to witness a person texting while driving to enforce that. And people often complain they weren’t texting – they were making a phone call. It’s very hard to prove.”
Both Gordon and Hayworth say officers in unmarked patrol cars have a better chance of witnessing someone texting while driving.
Gordon said it is easier to spot on highways, where officers can examine drivers for long periods of time.
“A lot of times, people get so concentrated on the text they aren’t aware of who is around them,” Gordon said. “It’s not uncommon for law enforcement officers to drive up to someone who is texting while driving and they don’t even have a clue we are there until they look up from their phones.”
‘Use common sense’
Hayworth said he sees someone texting while driving every time he is off-duty, driving around town in plain clothes in his pickup truck.
It’s a tempting stunt in a society that craves instant communication with everyone, Gordon said.
“The smartphones are pretty much a mobile office,” he said. “People are doing their jobs off their cellphones.”
But the statistics are hazy in North Carolina since texting while driving is lumped in with other forms of distracted driving, the same as changing the dial on the radio, eating or doing one’s makeup could be.
“To say we have X number of wrecks attributed to texting while driving is really not realistic,” Gordon said.
Hayworth said he thinks the no-texting law is there to enforce when possible, but that it carries the implication of exercising common sense while driving.
“Texting is dangerous to drivers, themselves, and dangerous to others,” he said. “Rather than trying to avoid a ticket they should use common sense and realize it is dangerous, and even, as in this recent incident, can be fatal, and stop doing it altogether. It’s one of those laws that is really out there to protect the public.”
Troopers charged Hicks with texting while driving and failure to wear a seatbelt in the Memorial Day crash in Zebulon.
Gordon said investigating troopers will meet with the Wake County District Attorney’s office to determine if more charges are warranted.
“We want to expedite and finish things as soon as possible, but we also want to be as thorough as possible,” he said. “Unfortunate events like Monday that result in a life being taken give us the opportunity to reeducate again.”