Is it me or is distracted driving on the rise? I’ve been rear-ended three times in Santa Cruz this year

Jeanette Prather and her oft-dented ride.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

I’ve been rear-ended three times since February in Santa Cruz, Jeanette Prather writes. She says she’s getting used to the sound of metal slamming into her bumper, which is disturbing and unacceptable. People need to stop texting, driving with pets and not paying attention to the road.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

Distracted drivers have rear-ended me three times in the past eight months.

Each time, my car was stopped — once for a pedestrian and twice at red lights. The past two accidents happened within weeks of each other.

I’m getting used to the sound of metal slamming into my bumper, which is disturbing and unacceptable. I now double-check in the rearview mirror at every stop to ensure the car behind me is slowing down.

“No way!” my friends and family shout when I call them and begin with, “You will not believe what just happened.” “You didn’t get in a car accident again, did you?” they say, incredulous.

People have speculated that driving has gotten crazier because of the pandemic and I agree. A quick look at the numbers confirms it.

In the City of Santa Cruz, police issued double the number of distracted-driver citations in 2021 (79) compared to 2020 (39). Distracted driving means someone was writing, reading, texting or otherwise using a phone while driving. As of last week, police had issued 65 citations so far this year — and we haven’t even entered the holiday season yet.

It gets worse — and more deadly — the wider you look.

In the Bay Area, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) issued more than 55,800 distracted driving tickets in 2021. Also in 2021, distracted driving caused 13,000 Bay Area accidents, 56 fatalities and 6,300 injuries.

Nationally, a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows 42,915 people died in 2021 in car crashes, which is 10.5% more than the 38,824 deaths in 2020. The NHTSA attributed 3,142 of those deaths to distracted driving.

Of course, shelter-in-place orders kept many people home in 2020, but the rise is still significant and upsetting. Imagine our nation’s largest football stadium (think Ann Arbor or Columbus) half full of people who died in car accidents.

Statistics aside, let’s call it what it is: people are playing around on their phones, eating and “multitasking” while driving and endangering the rest of us.

NHTSA cites texting as the most “alarming” distraction. “Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed,” the report says.

writer Jeanette Prather
“Until vehicles are smart enough to truly drive themselves without all of the complications and side effects, might I suggest that drivers on the road just drive their cars?” Jeanette Prather asks.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

According to the CHP, cellphone usage while driving increases a person’s chances of being involved in a collision by 400% and is the top reason for car accidents.

I’m pretty certain that’s how my first rear-ender went down last February.

The worst part — aside from the driver not having insurance, expired registration and her grandson in the car — is that I saw her barreling down Morrissey Boulevard at an incredible speed, thinking to myself, “Wow, should I pull out or wait until this crazy driver passes me?”

I should’ve waited.

Thank goodness my car protected the pedestrian I had stopped for, otherwise the accident might have been far worse. She totaled both of our cars and left me with wicked whiplash.

I’m still trying to track her down as she’s since changed her phone number and deleted any online presence she had. She was slapped on the wrist and given a $10 registration fix-it ticket.

My second incident was mid-August. While he was getting off the freeway at 41st Avenue, the driver’s 6-year-old daughter was having a seizure in the back seat. He was watching his daughter in his rearview mirror while he ran into me stopped at the red light. His speed was far less vigorous than the careless grandmother, but we both still had to pay a visit to the body shop. His daughter seemed OK after the crash, luckily. I felt bad for him, of course. He was insured; both our cars got fixed.

Incident No. 3 occurred a couple of weeks after the second rear-ending, in August. Again, I was stopped at a red light, this time turning onto River Street.

Distracted driver No. 3 admitted to me that not only was he on his phone, but that his large puppy was running across his lap. This was just a tap, but he still damaged my bumper, which entailed yet another trip to the body shop.

Needless to say, I have spent time getting to know body-shop mechanics.

Anthony Saso from Fix Auto in Salinas tells me he’s been doing a lot of repairs thanks to cellphones. “Claim counts have gone way up, too,” he said. “In 2019 they were steady, COVID hit, and they disappeared. It was like doomsday for auto body shops. Now, they’ve come back like threefold after COVID. I am also seeing a lot of repeat customers.”

Yes, yes, like me.

Drivers have one thing to do while behind the wheel: drive their car. This also involves stopping occasionally and not using the vehicle in front of them as a bumper car.

Three rear-endings in six months is simply ridiculous.

The sheer number of fatalities and rising accidents as a result of people not operating their vehicles properly should serve as a warning to anyone behind the wheel tempted to check their phone or pet their dog or look away from the window even for a few seconds.

Until vehicles are smart enough to truly drive themselves without all of the complications and side effects, might I suggest that drivers on the road just drive their cars?

I mean really, it might just be me that you slam into, and I really can’t handle another rear-ending this year.

Jeanette Bent (pen name Prather) holds a print journalism degree from Cal State Long Beach and has published hundreds of articles for a variety of national and global publications, as well as three books and six musical theater scripts. She is from Santa Cruz and moved back in 2012 with her husband and two children.

More from Community Voices