LANSING, Mich. (WZZM) -- A WZZM 13 Watchdog investigation has found state leaders are having problems defining how many crashes are caused by distracted drivers.
Distracted driving called an "epidemic" these days by those in law enforcement. Federal research indicates about 10 percent of all highway deaths are the result of distracted driving.
At the state level, however, the Michigan State Police is telling the 13 Watchdog team there is severe under-reporting when it comes to crashes caused by distracted drivers. What we heard in the House Transportation Committee meeting last month was certainly a surprise to us.
"It's my opinion that we have a lot more distracted driving crashes then what are being recorded out there, just because the UD-10's aren't being recorded properly," State Police Lt. Jim Flegel said.
The UD-10's are traffic accident forms filled out by law enforcement for every crash that happens on our roads.
"Unfortunately for law enforcement, those aren't being properly coded on the UD-10 or the traffic crash report form, so we don't have excellent data on how many vehicle crashes are involved with distracted driving," Flegel said.
Flegel says the severe under reporting is happening because officers often fill out the UD-10 form and mark that a person appears normal without asking questions whether that person was distracted or not while driving. The realization from our investigation is that, few, if anybody, in this state has a firm grip on the distracted driving situation. This comes five years after Michigan law prohibited texting while driving.
What everybody does know in government is the problem is being attacked, though. There is heavy enforcement by the MSP, at times, using unmarked vehicles to catch people texting and driving.
"Law enforcement is being pro-active in going out and stopping vehicles that are texting, especially the dangers that are involved in texting," State police trooper Cecil Vashaw said.
We do have correct numbers when it comes to citations from texting and driving. In 2013, the MSP issued 684 texting and driving tickets. In 2014, there were 1,121 tickets issued for texting and driving. In 2015, as of early October, there were 933 tickets issued -- suggesting the MSP is on the way to breaking a record, despite how difficult it is to prove people are doing it.
There's no question the overall issue of distracted driving is very difficult.
Jason Talsma's son, David, was killed in a distracted driving-related crash in August in Ottawa County. The young teen was in the backseat of a vehicle that was rear-ended by a distracted driver.
Talsma has spread awareness after his son's death during the past few months about the dangers of distracted driving.
"What's been apparent to me is that people are really taking this seriously, and they've changed their habits," Talsma said. "They've been consciously thinking about what they're doing while they're driving."
We looked into the crash involving David Talsma and found that law enforcement in Ottawa County did in fact fill in a circle on the traffic crash form related to distracted driving. But it's obvious there's no place on the UD-10 form to show how the driver was distracted.
In Talsma's case, driver Travis Fox admitted to eating and looking at GPS at the time of the crash but you'd never know it from looking at the UD-10 form.
We can tell you as a result of years of work, come 2016, there will be changes including a redesign of the UD-10 form. One extra box placed on the new form will force those in law enforcement to ask additional questions of those who cause a crash whether they were distracted at the time of it or not.
There is optimism by those in law enforcement that this simple change on a piece of paper will open the door to a wealth of information.
"We can get a better picture of how many crashes are really involved with distracted driving," Flegel said.
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