(L) Photo Courtesy of the Family Facebook Page

(R) M. Terry/SFVS

Alan Hefter (right) of the Jacob Hefter Foundation instructs a North Hollywood High student on the use of a computerized automobile simulator during a program for Distracted Driver Awareness Month.

It’s been almost eight years since San Fernando Valley resident Jeri Dye Lynch lost her son, Conor.

The 16-year-old youth, who attended Notre Dame High School, was out jogging with his cross-country teammates when he was fatally struck by a hit-and-run driver on Woodman Avenue in Sherman Oaks on Oct. 19, 2010.

The driver — Moran Biton, then 18 — would stop about four blocks away from the accident scene and spoke to police. She eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor hit-and-run and driving without a license.

“It happened during ‘National Teen Driver Safety Driving’ week. A terrible irony,” said Lynch, who is the president and co-founder (with husband Mark Lynch) of a foundation promoting driver and pedestrian safety in Conor’s memory.

“All it takes is one second to change a family and a community. It got me to thinking. I realized this is [still] an epidemic we were having, unfortunately, as much as we have done in bringing attention and awareness of the dangers.”

April is Distracted Driver Awareness Month. And it’s a time when people, officials say, need to be reminded about the terrible toll caused by preventable accidents, and informed about the growing concern regarding a stubborn insistence to operate vehicles on streets and freeways while illegally holding and

using electronic communication devices.

Published reports state that pedestrian deaths nationally have risen 27 percent from 2006 to 2017. The report by the Governors Highway Safety Association cited California as one of five states — along with Arizona, Florida, New York and Texas — that accounted for 43 percent of pedestrian deaths during the first half of 2017 even though those five states account for only 30 percent of the US population.

That wasn’t the only pertinent available data.

The number one killer of teens in the US is car crashes. According to figures released by the National Center for Statistics and Analysis, an estimated 4,800 people die each year in crashes involving young drivers.

In addition, the report stated, 76 percent of all fatal teen driving crashes do not involve alcohol.

“We need to change the driving culture,” said California Highway Patrol officer and media spokesman Leland Tang, who is based in Woodland Hills. “These aren’t simply sad accidents, but they are preventable collisions.”

The National Safety Council reported that even with a slight decline in the preliminary estimates for motor vehicle deaths in 2017 — 40,100 — from the 40,237 deaths in 2016, it would still be a second straight year of at least 40,000 deaths, and the largest two-year increase in the past 50 years.

Driving distracted is becoming the poster child for increasing the dangers to motor and foot traffic.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which released its 10th Annual Traffic Safety Culture Index in March (and is based on a nationally representative 2017 survey of more than 2,600 US motorists between November and December) reported that most drivers surveyed (87.5 percent) believe that distracted drivers are a bigger problem today than in past years.

Next highest was traffic congestion (74.5 percent), followed by aggressive drivers (68.1 percent), drivers using drugs (54.9 percent) and drunk driving (43.4 percent).

When asked how often they observed certain, constant behaviors on the road in the 30 days covered in the survey, 92.8 percent of drivers said they witnessed others behind the wheel talking on cellphones regularly or fairly often. And 84 percent said they saw drivers texting or sending emails.

In the City of San Fernando, “We are seeing a lot of speeding-related incidents, failing to stop at stop signs and failing to yield to oncoming traffic. And I think distracted driving will aways be a component of that,” said Lt. Nichole Hanchett, commander of the San Fernando Police Department’s patrol division.

“You’re driving in your car, and you look over at the car next to you and it seems like everybody is on a phone or other device. We’re in a society now where people expect things right away. And with all the digital media available, a lot of people believe they can still be working and checking emails while driving. Folks need to keep both hands on wheel, and slow down.” 

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website, it takes approximately five seconds on average to read or send a text. In that span of time, with your eyes on your phone and not on the road, a vehicle traveling 55 miles per hour can travel the length of a football field.

Tang said CHP officers “don’t see as much texting by drivers on our freeways these days,” but “we’re still seeing people using phones [while driving] on the freeway. We are still working to change human behavior.”

He emphasized that distracted driving is more than just talking or emailing on phones. It’s considered “anything you’re doing behind the wheel that undermines safe driving,” such as eating and drinking, adjusting your music or air conditioner, applying makeup, even checking yourself out in the mirror.

Ten years ago, Tang said, state law prohibited drivers from holding cell phones while driving for any reason. The language of the law has since been amended to read

“any electronic communication device.”

So, for example, if you’re driving and holding the phone while using it as a GPS navigation device you are still breaking the law even if you’re not talking on the phone, the officer said.

 “What we still have to be very careful about is cognitive distraction — not paying attention to the surroundings,” Tang said. “Your hands are free but your mind is not focused on driving. That is a danger that we are warning the public about.”

More steps, and more driver education, needs to take place for safer highways, Lynch said.

“We have to stigmatize distracted driving behavior like we did with DUI/drunk driving. Because we’re having a harder time getting people to change their behavior along with the technology,” she said.

“It took MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) 30 years to where if you have a drunk driving violation you could go to jail. I know we’ve had phones over 20 years….think of the number of lives lost. I know we don’t yet have a cure for cancer but I know the cure for distracted driving. Put the phone down and concentrate on driving.”