- Associated Press - Sunday, March 12, 2017

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas recorded a 22 percent increase in traffic fatalities in 2016 compared with the previous years and some experts say the blame falls on drivers who are looking at their phones instead of the road.

Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Chad Crittenden said he recently watched 11 of 14 drivers go through a busy Wichita intersection either talking or texting on their cellphones.

“It’s a huge problem,” Crittenden told The Wichita Eagle (https://bit.ly/2ngA2ZT). “We can drive down the street and see the number of people on their phones, eating food, looking at GPS and manipulating other technology devices. The list goes on and on.”

There were 432 traffic fatalities in Kansas in 2016, according to the Kansas Department of Transportation. Traffic fatalities nationwide increased 6 percent in 2016, according to the National Safety Council, which said 40,200 people died in traffic accidents last year - the first time the number exceeded 40,000 since 2007.

Another factor is lower gas prices, which leads to more people on the roads, experts said.

“The economy is always the canary in the coal mine,” said Ken Kolosh, a statistics manager with the National Safety Council. “We have been examining traffic fatalities since 1913, and we know they ebb and flow with the economy. When our dollars improve, our roadways become more dangerous.”

But Kolosh noted the country had a 3 percent increase in miles driven and a 6 percent increase in deaths last year “meaning something else is at play.”

The council said only Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa and New Mexico had a larger percentage increase in traffic deaths than Kansas from 2015 through last year.

In most places in Kansas, it’s not illegal to talk on a mobile phone while driving - exceptions include those with farm permits and restricted licenses - but it is illegal to text while driving.

The no-texting law can be difficult to enforce because drivers can tell officers they were using phones to get directions, which is not illegal in Kansas. Drivers also aren’t required to allow officers to see their phones.

Crittenden said he would like Kansas to enact a hands-free law that prohibits motorists from holding their phones while driving.

However, the hands-free option does not appear to be safer, according to a 2012 report from the National Safety Council, which said more than 30 studies conducted by scientists around the world found use of hands-free devices did not improve safety.

“We know that hands-free and texting are equally distracting,” said Jim Hanni, spokesman for AAA in Kansas. “It’s a matter of cognitive distraction where a person’s mind is somewhere else.”

For now, Crittenden hopes more drivers put down their phones in their vehicles.

“I don’t think people understand how dangerous it can be to operate that 3,000-pound to 10,000-pound vehicle while distracted,” Crittenden said.

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Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, https://www.kansas.com

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