Distracted driving is now a leading cause of traffic crashes. - WGEM.com: Quincy News, Weather, Sports, and Radio

Distracted driving is now a leading cause of traffic crashes.

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As you drive to work or school, where is your cell phone? Are you using it?

Distracted driving is now a leading cause of traffic crashes nationwide and Missouri State Highway Patrol Sergeant Brent Bernhardt says it's the number one cause in Missouri. Bernhardt shared some pretty eye-opening numbers for what one Missouri state trooper calls a growing epidemic.

The MSHP says in 2011, 153 people were killed and 10,000 injured just in Missouri in crashes caused by distracted driving.

The first thing that may come to mind when you think of distracted driving is cell phone use, but Sergeant Bernhardt says it includes much more than that.

"Eating or drinking, reading, maybe bending down to pick up something that's dropped on the floor, having a conversation with a passenger or maybe having a pet that's running loose inside your vehicle," said Bernhardt.

Bernhardt says when you pick up your cell phone to text and drive, you increase your chance of crashing up by 23 percent.

"What we have to keep in mind is when we are distracted, even for a short time, we have a bigger chance of being involved in a traffic crash," Bernhardt said, "and we're simply not paying attention to the main task at hand which is operating our motor vehicle safely."

The average text takes your eyes off the road 4.6 seconds. That's like driving the length of a football field at 55 mph - blind.

Bernhardt says the sad reality is all distracted driving accidents could be prevented if people would just pay attention while driving.

Monroe City resident Adam Anderson is a husband and father of two. He says he's against distracted driving because of the threat it poses on his own family.

"It makes me feel unsafe because if someone's texting and driving, they're on their cell phone. They're not aware of their surroundings so it could cause a wreck for me and my kids," said Anderson.

Bernhardt urges anyone who sees a distracted driver to call 911 right away. He says they drive much like a drunk driver, crossing the center line, running off the road, or running stop signs.

So is anything being done to cut down on distracted driving?

Bernhardt says parents, teens, educators, employers, and the government need to get involved. But the first line of defense, he says, is to be responsible and put your own devices away and keep your focus on the road.

What are the penalties for distracted driving?

In Missouri, there is no specific law against it, but you can get a ticket for careless and imprudent driving. Texting is against the law for drivers under 21. Both Illinois and Iowa ban texting completely for all drivers.

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