9 Investigates

Distracted driving crashes skyrocket in NC, costing lives and money

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Texting and driving is against the law in North Carolina, but a lot of people admit they do it, even though they consider themselves good drivers.

Troopers and insurance agents across the state say the rate of distracted driving is skyrocketing and costing more money and lives.

Eyewitness News polled people in uptown Charlotte to see how often they're seeing distracted drivers.

"I see it 90 percent of the time," truck driver Donta Bethea said. "I saw someone on their phone and they just ran into the back of somebody."

Claire Pritis said a distracted driver rear-ended her daughter.

"Fortunately, there were no injuries, and it was because the other driver was texting," Pritis said.

"Sometimes, I'm swerving," Nyshawn Smith said, describing what happens when he uses his phone while driving.

Several people, including John Donovan, reluctantly admitted they're guilty of driving while distracted.

"I've done it, I have,” Donovan said.

North Carolina Highway Patrol Trooper Ray Pierce took Eyewitness News on a ride-along, and he pointed out the telltale signs of a distracted driver.

"Driving too slowly," said Pierce. "The most thing we see is drifting out of your lane of travel, lane departure, and that's something on the rise, as far as fatalities."

Eyewitness News examined the past five years' worth of state crash data and found the number of crashes related to distracted driving jumped 10 percent from 2011 to 2016, leading to more than 54,000 crashes and killing 177 people in North Carolina.

[READ: 2016 Crash Facts]

But since drivers must self-report distracted driving, troopers said those figures can be misleading.

They believe distracted drivers are to blame for the dramatic jump in lane departures, which have gone up more than 20 percent since 2011, leading to more than 61,000 crashes and 841 deaths in 2016.

"I think we need to do more to keep people safe," Aubie Knight, CEO of Independent Insurance Agents of North Carolina, said. "We are a society that is addicted to our cellphones, and the bottom line, it's costing us, it's costing us in a lot of ways.”

Nearly eight in 10 drivers who responded to a 2017 Travelers Risk Index agreed that personal technology is very risky while driving. Still, more than 30 percent worry they'll get into an accident due to their own distraction.

[READ: 2017 Travelers Risk Index]

Knight said the number of crashes and claims has outpaced insurance companies' estimates.

"Obviously, if insurance companies are losing billions of dollars writing auto insurance, they are going to pass that cost to the consumers," Knight said.

Knight suggests a multifaceted approach: not just tougher laws, but an attitude shift, making texting and driving as socially unacceptable as drinking and driving.

"Make it taboo. Passengers need to speak up," Knight said.

For now, Donovan is trying to break his own habit and hopes others will follow suit.

"It has to be a conscious choice. I'm working on it, I don't want to hurt anyone," Donovan said.

Fifteen other states have passed bans against using all handheld communication devices for all ages while driving.

[READ: Garlock Act/Hands-Free Driving Bill]

Sen. Jeff Tarte introduced a hands-free bill in 2017 and is still trying to get support for it.  Knight said he is working with a coalition of law enforcement and lawmakers to build support for a hands-free bill by the 2019 session.