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EDITORIAL: Drivers need to focus or pay the price

If you've ever texted, used a cell phone, munched on a burger and fries or applied makeup — all while driving — you're lucky to be alive. And so are the other drivers who you dangerously shared the road with.

It's time for distracted drivers to focus — or pay the price.

Next week, April 12-16 state and local law enforcement agencies will be stepping up their efforts to catch distracted drivers as part of a new campaign, "U Drive. U Text. U Pay."

April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month — a good time to look hard into your driving habits and make sure that your full attention is on the road ahead. If you think you're capable of multi-tasking while driving, consider this: In 2015, 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Don't become part of those numbers.

Other sobering statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

• Ten percent of fatal crashes, 15 percent of injury crashes and 14 percent of all police-reported crashes in 2015 were reported as distraction-affected crashes.

• Texting while driving has become a troublesome trend among millennials. Since 2007, young drivers, 16 to 24 years old, have been observed using handheld electronic devices while driving at higher rates than older drivers.

• Nine percent of all drivers 15 to 19 years old who were involved in fatal crashes were reported as being distracted at the time of their crashes. This age group has the largest percentage of drivers who were distracted at the time of fatal crashes.

• Handheld cellphone use while driving is highest among 16 to 24 year old drivers. Female drivers 15 to 39 years old are most at risk for being involved in a fatal crash involving a distracted driver.

• Female drivers with a cell phone have been more likely to be involved in fatal distracted driving crashes as compared to male drivers every year since 2011.

Distracted driving isn't being taken seriously enough. While more than eight in 10 drivers believe it's completely unacceptable for a driver to text or email behind the wheel, more than a third of those same respondents admitted to reading text messages while driving, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Despite the added risk of getting into a fatal crash, fewer drivers sem concerned about texting while driving. One study by the AAA Foundation taken in 2015 found that 77 percent of drivers considered texting while driving to be a problem, which is down 19 percent from the 96 percent in 2013.

There are things drivers can and should do to combat the distracted driving problem. The Hartford financial services company offers these tips:

• Don't follow the pack. Be a leader. When you get behind the wheel, be an example to your family and friends by putting your phone away.

• Speak up. If you friends text while driving, tell them to stop.

• Listen to your passengers; if they catch you texting while driving and tell you to put the phone away, do it. No one likes to be called out by a friend for doing something wrong but it's worse to get caught by law enforcement and end up paying a fine.

• Remember when you get behind the wheel, put your phone away.

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