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Distracted Drivers can make M-24 a homegrown nightmare

August 17, 2011 - By Joe St. Henry

Review Editor

When did it become blasé to simply drive a car?

That is a question Lake Orion Police Department Chief of Police Jerry Narsh and his officers ask each day. They watch distracted drivers of all ages try to do everything but keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.

In fact, Narsh is convinced distracted driving is as much to blame for the heavy congestion on Lapeer Road through Lake Orion as the estimated 34,000 vehicles that travel the stretch of M-24 daily.

A 30-year LOPD veteran, Narsh has seen it all in terms of what drivers try to do while navigating their cars and trucks through the village, from people eating, primping and emailing, to those getting a little frisky.

"People are trapped in their cars," he said. "To make best use of their time, cars have become offices on wheels, or boutiques and dressing rooms, and cafeterias."

Not long ago, one of his officers saw a young woman putting on her makeup while creeping up on car in front of her, he recounted. "She dropped her eye liner on the floor to answer her cell phone and then got into an animated conversation," Narsh said. "She obviously wasn't paying much attention to the road."

Orion Township resident Kevin Barnes travels M-24 through Oxford on a regular basis for work. He also has seen his share of distracted drivers. "I was right behind a car the other day and it was driving so slow," he said. "I pulled alongside and it was a young person texting on her phone and looking down, oblivious to what was going on around her."

Technologies such as cell phones and texting are here to stay said Narsh, so the challenge is to better train and educate drivers on when it is appropriate to use them. "Obviously, texting is never acceptable when driving," he stressed.

Not knowing where one is going can be another major distraction that slows down traffic and sometimes causes accidents, according to township resident Diane Schlitt. "My biggest pet peeve is people not using their turn signals. They don't know where they're going and then all of the sudden they swerve into a parking lot or driveway."

Construction through the downtown area has not helped maintain the drivers' focus either. "Traffic through town is worse than ever," Barnes said. "I'm not sure if it's the construction, lights or whatever, but you can't drive through downtown without hitting every light."

Narsh admits M-24 is the community's own "homegrown nightmare" and said wherever there are turning vehicles, traffic slows. To keep vehicles moving, he said a camera-monitored, smart traffic light system is now being installed and tested along the M-24 corridor through Lake Orion. Other enhancements include improved traffic signage.

"We do our best to manage the traffic congestion, but we can't eliminate it," Narsh said.

Distracted drivers in Troy can now receive tickets for their lapses of attention, based on an officer's discretion. Narsh said there is a push underway in Lansing to put a distracted-driving law in place statewide. The police chief is not ready to enact a distracted-driving law here, but he does think there is a strong need to better educate drivers about the danger.

He also wants to let people know that police here have always issued careless driving or reckless driving tickets to distracted drivers, if warranted. "We see a lot of edgy drivers on the road these days," said Narsh, who said road rage is a greater contributor to traffic congestion here than accidents.

The Lake Orion Police also have seen plenty of distracted pedestrians and bicyclists along M-24, many of whom are either talking or texting on their cell phones, or plugged into their iPods.

"They may have the right of way, but it is not worth getting hurt or killed by getting hit by a car," Narsh said. "You need to stay focused on what is going on around you."

The growing numbers of drowsy drivers are of even greater concern to the LOPD, Narsh stressed. He cited a law enforcement report that said 41 percent of drivers on the road today admit to having driven when extremely tired. He thinks this figure is much, much higher.

"What is the difference between driving drowsy and driving drunk?" Narsh asked. "Both situations are very dangerous. All I can say is get more sleep."

The police chief said there are about a dozen significant accidents along M-24 each month, with countless others narrowly avoided, based on the observations of officers.

"We hear the screech of tires, and wait for the crunching sound," he said, noting that every driver needs to ask themselves if they contribute to the congestion by not paying close attention to the road.

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