Editorial: Roads safer, but distracted driving still a problem

Oregon’s highways are becoming safer year by year, if preliminary statistics from the state Department of Transportation are any indication. First reports show traffic fatalities fell by 6 percent from 2012 for a variety of reasons.

Oregonians continue to be among the most conscientious about seatbelt use in the nation, for one thing.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, some 96.8 percent of state residents buckled up in 2012, the last year for which numbers were available. Only Washingtonians did better, at 96.9 percent. In both states, the numbers have improved fractionally but steadily over time.

Too, not only are cars safer, with more airbags and the like, but medical help reaches accidents sooner and new technologies make roadside treatment more effective, Troy Costales of ODOT told The Oregonian newspaper recently.

The changes have helped push fatality rates down. Thus, the odds of getting somewhere alive rose most among vulnerable road users: bicyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians. Declines in those deaths from 2012 ranged from 50 percent for bicyclists to 10 percent for pedestrians.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to trace the decline to a similar decline in distracted driving. While 2013 distracted driving statistics are not yet available, the number of accidents linked to distractions has been on the rise.

The total number of accidents in Oregon involving distracted drivers actually climbed by about 500 from 2009 to 2012 — from 2,625 to 3,199. The twin messages that cellphone use and texting are dangerous apparently have yet to persuade too many of us to keep our hands on the wheel and our attention on the road.

Nationwide, texting or talking on the phone while driving are particularly dangerous for young drivers, according to the NHTSA. Overall, in 2012, 11 percent of drivers under the age of 20 reported they were distracted at the time of an accident. Meanwhile, 21 percent of drivers 15 to 19 said they were using cell phones when they were involved in accidents and fatalities occurred. There is no reason to believe the percentages in Oregon vary by much.

Final Oregon traffic statistics for 2013 won’t be available until later in the year. Meanwhile, preliminary figures show that while some things have improved, we still have plenty to work on to make our roadways safe.