Students contemplate toll of distracted driving

The wrecked car of Alexxyss Leigh Therwhanger, who died while distracted by her phone while driving on Highway 395 in 2016 south of Pilot Rock, sits on display outside of the Hermiston High School in 2017.

Last year, the Hermiston Police Department handed out almost 200 citations for operating a motor vehicle while using a mobile electronic device and for careless driving. Now, thanks to a grant, the department aims to hand out more distracted driving tickets.

The department has received a $4,000 Distracted Driving Enforcement Grant through Oregon Impact, a nonprofit that advocates against impaired and distracted driving. The grant will provide about 60 hours of overtime specifically focused on distracted driving.

According to the Oregon Department of Transportation, there are four types of distracted driving — visual, auditory, manual, and cognitive. One of the most prominent behaviors, which can involve all four types of distracted driving, is cellphone use.

Between 2013 and 2017, 20 people in Oregon died and over 1,500 have been injured due to crashes involving cellphone use behind the wheel. This includes 158 people who were injured while in the car with a driver between the ages of 16 and 18, who was using a cellphone at the time of an accident.

“There’s a significant difference between talking on a cellphone and texting on a cellphone,” said Hermiston Police Department Chief Jason Edmiston. “There may be some sort of justification for someone talking on a cellphone. Texting on a cellphone, there’s no rhyme or reason. Pull over if it’s that important.”

The grant is the first of its kind received by the HPD, which also pursues grants supporting high visibility and DUII enforcement.

The HPD has an officer whose main focus is traffic patrol. Edmiston said he usually responds to crashes, and that traffic patrol goes beyond catching distracted drivers.

“A lot of criminal activity is mobile,” Edmiston said.

A routine traffic stop could result in the return of stolen property, or in the discovery of clandestine substances.

Edmiston said the department has investigated multiple crashes that involved pedestrian use of cellphones.

The number of crashes in the city of Hermiston has increased 10% the past five years as population has expanded from over 17,340 to 18,200 people.

When the HPD makes a traffic stop for distracted driving, they’ll issue the maximum fine for the Class B traffic violation, which is $1,000. Second offenses, or first-time offenses that result in a crash, can expect a maximum fine of $2,000 for a Class A violation.

Edmiston said he expects the amount of citations to increase in Hermiston for the duration of the grant.

“Traffic citations are no fun, but they’re not the end of the world,” he said.

Edmiston’s connection to distracted driving is more than just professional.

In 2016, his great-niece, Alexxyss Therwhanger, 19, was involved in a deadly crash south of Pilot Rock. She was living in Richland, Wash. at the time.

Investigations later revealed she had been using her cellphone periodically during the trip.

“That was a 19-year-old who hadn’t experienced life yet,” he said. “She had everything in front of her and made one mistake. We’ve all made mistakes, but that one cost her dearly.”

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