April has been designated National Distracted Driving Awareness Month by the state and national departments of transportation. In an effort to encourage Pennsylvania motorists to ditch their cellphones and anything else that could take their eyes off the wheel, PennDOT has launched a new campaign called “Just Drive PA.”

The statistics on how distracted driving leads to car accidents are not just revealing; they’re frightening. In 2009, distracted driving was reported in 20 percent of crashes involving injuries and 16 percent of fatal crashes. In the same year, 5,474 people were killed in crashes involving driver distraction and almost 450,000 were injured.

Of all the potential distractions drivers face, texting has gotten the most attention recently. Perhaps that’s because a driver sending or receiving a message is 23 times more likely to crash, the U.S. Department of Transportation reports. Considering that the number of text messages sent or received in the U.S. has increased by 50 percent in the past two years, the death and injury numbers stated above could be even higher once more recent statistics become available.

It’s important to remember that when drivers are distracted, they’re putting their passengers at risk. According to the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of all American teens say they’ve been in a car when the driver used a cellphone in a way that put people in danger. But according to a Transportation Department survey, two-thirds of younger drivers never speak up.

Transportation officials in Pennsylvania hope the “Just Drive PA” campaign, which draws attention to all sorts of driver distractions, will raise public consciousness and encourage both drivers and passengers to make the effort to stay safe. That means speaking up about distractions if you’re a passenger, and putting the phone down if you’re behind the wheel.

Source: York Daily Record, “‘Just Drive PA’ aims to improve safety on the roads,” April 18, 2012