ABINGDON, Va. — Drivers trying to multitask behind the wheel and those under the influence of prescription drugs make today’s highway travel even more dangerous, law enforcement officials said Thursday.
Officers from about 40 police agencies across Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee participated in the formal kickoff of 100 Days of Summer Heat — a Tennessee initiative to improve highway safety. This year, the effort includes working with Virginia agencies.
During the event at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Abingdon, Capt. Robert Chappell of the Virginia State Police urged agencies to work together to try and reduce highway crashes.
“In Virginia last year, we had 819 fatalities, and we seemed to celebrate that because it was a decrease from 843 the year before. I find it hard to believe we celebrate 819 deaths. Over the last five years in Virginia, over 3,300 people have lost their lives,” Chappell said.
The 100 Days of Summer Heat program highlights increased police enforcement on roadways during the busy summer months between Memorial Day and Labor Day. It is aimed at reducing crashes by targeting speeding, those who are not wearing seat belts, drinking, distracted driving and other dangerous behaviors.
The latest challenge comes from within vehicles, where modern technology is taking people’s attention off the road like never before.
“I think the days of us being able to solve the fatality crisis by putting one deputy on a roadway, one officer on a roadway, or one trooper on an interstate are gone. I don’t think that’s the solution anymore,” Chappell said. “I think the problems have become too complex. The technology fixed inside every vehicle and portable into the vehicle have become extremely complex.”
Chappell said the modern driver can be distracted by all manner of technology, social media, streaming and other communication either through a smart phone or linked to technology within the vehicle. All of it can take his or her attention off the highway.
“There’s a new thing today called infotainment system. Basically, everything in your car that can do a variety of things. … You can’t do it justice by calling it distracted driving, it’s more like distracted driving on steroids inside that vehicle,” Chappell said.
Washington County Sheriff Fred Newman agreed that the rise of distractions is playing a much larger role in crashes.
“Without a doubt, distracted driving is the number one change we’re seeing,” Newman said. “I’ve heard statistics saying up to 25% of total crashes that occur are due to distracted driving. Certainly, that’s something we didn’t have to deal with many, many years ago when I was a trooper. Distracted driving now seems to be the No. 1 cause.”
In Tennessee, traffic fatalities this year are running ahead of last year’s pace. In 2018, 344 people died on state roadways through the first five months of the year while that number has already reached 372 in 2019. A total of 996 people died in Tennessee crashes last year.
The rise in prescription opioid addiction is also impacting the roadways, according to Sgt. Jerry Hughes of the Tennessee Highway Safety Office.
“There are so many of these prescription drugs and people go to these pain clinics. Until the law was passed, people would get 60, 80, 100 pills at one time,” Hughes said. “They would go throughout Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina and make a circle. They would start at 3 in the morning and stop at 4 [p.m.] to go home, but while they’re driving, they’re popping pills.”
Hughes said officers are undergoing additional advanced training and certifications to help identify drivers who are under the influence of various types of drugs versus traditional training for drinking drivers.