Ursula Geis was in her 2006 Corvette heading to the Willowbend Country Club for a Christmas party. “It’s Monterey red with red tint coat,” she said. “I really take good care of my car.”
It was Dec. 13, 2009, a sunny Sunday afternoon, when she exited Kellogg and headed up the I-235 on-ramp.
“I was waiting on oncoming traffic,” Geis said, “and she clobbers me from behind. The minute she hit me I glanced in the rear-view mirror, and she was on her cellphone.
“She admitted she wasn’t paying attention. She was not paying attention at all. I went off on her.
“She said, ‘Don’t you ever talk on your cellphone? I said, ‘Not when I’m trying to get on I-235 from Kellogg.’ ”
The accident was one of 499 in Kansas that year where accident investigators listed “distracted by cellphone” as a contributing factor.
The report in Geis’ case listed two factors: the 27-year-old woman who was driving the Pontiac Grand Am that hit her was following too closely, and she was distracted by a cellphone.
The number of accidents involving cellphone use increased 25 percent in 2009 over the previous year. Because the Kansas Department of Transportation recently switched systems for reporting and collecting accident information, the 2009 accident data wasn’t available until this month.
The data showed that there were 61,141 accidents in Kansas in 2009 — a 7 percent decrease from 2008. It was the second straight year that accidents declined statewide. Safety officials attribute the drop to higher gas prices and fewer miles driven on Kansas roads.
Only 0.8 percent of the 2009 accident reports listed cellphone distraction as a contributing factor, but safety experts suspect the percentage is much higher.
Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Gary Warner said he doubts there were only 499 cellphone accidents in 2009, or only 394 in 2008, or only 350 in 2007.
“I think those numbers are incredibly low,” he said.
Warner said about 45 percent of accidents are one-vehicle crashes in which much of the information that goes on an accident report comes from the driver.
“If I’m talking on a cellphone or texting and I drift off the edge of road and I overcorrect and I roll over and it’s just me involved, then is it likely that I’m going to admit that I was texting” or talking on the cellphone?
Although the numbers are small, the number of cellphone accidents has been increasing steadily since data was first collected in 2003. Only 198 accidents were attributed to cellphone usage that first year.
From 2003 through 2009, the 2,344 documented cellphone accidents in Kansas resulted in 28 deaths and 1,126 injuries.
Wichita police Lt. Joe Schroeder said he’s not surprised that the number of cellphone accidents has risen every year since the state began tracking them.
But he said the increase is probably the result of better reporting, not an increase in the number of drivers using cellphones.
“I don’t know if the actual numbers have gone up as much as the reporting has gotten better,” he said. “It wasn’t until recently that it became a big issue and we started concentrating on it. Now people are more cognizant of it.”
The 499 cellphone accidents statewide in 2009 included five that involved fatalities.
The fatalities occurred on April 22 on U.S. 50 in Lyon County, on May 8 on K-61 in Reno County, on May 16 on K-18 in Riley County, on Aug. 30 on U.S. 283 in Hodgeman County, and on Dec. 15 on U.S. 54 in Bourbon County.
In Sedgwick County in 2009, there were 61 cellphone accidents involving 110 vehicles, 37 injuries and no fatalities.
Today 10 states ban the use of hand-held cellphones by drivers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Of those states, most of which are on the East and West coasts, New York and California are the largest. No Midwest state bars drivers from using cellphones.
Five other states have partial bans on cellphone use. Illinois, for example, bans their use in school and construction zones. The Insurance Institute said 38 states ban texting while driving.
It’s been more than a year since the 2010 Kansas Legislature passed its ban on texting while driving. State Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, said it’s not likely that legislators will extend the ban to all cellphone usage any time soon.
“That would draw a lot more resistance than texting because texting takes so much more attention off your driving,” he said.
Donovan said a lot of conservative legislators who were first elected to office in 2010 aren’t likely to support a cellphone ban.
“They’re going to be very, very reluctant to vote for anything that gives the government any more power over the people.”
In today’s business world, Donovan said, many drivers find it necessary to talk to clients while driving.
Although Donovan said he sometimes uses a hands-free cellphone when driving, he said he sympathizes with those who think driving and cellphones are a dangerous combination.
“All of us have stories to tell,” he said. “I have stories. You have stories about someone who turns in front of you or cuts in front of you because they were yakking on a cellphone.”
Geis, whose Corvette sustained $7,000 in damage in the I-235 wreck, said even she has used a hands-free phone while driving.
“But if I get into heavy traffic, I hang up and call back later,” she said.
Michael Wilderson said he often talks on a hands-free cellphone while conducting business on the road.
He remembers pulling up to a four-way stop sign at 31st South and Webb Road on Jan. 8, 2009.
“I was pulling up to the stop sign, probably going 20 mph and preparing to stop,” Wilderson said.
He said the pickup behind him was probably doing the speed limit.
“As I recall it was 55 mph, and I don’t think he ever hit the brakes,” Wilderson said. “He didn’t even slow down. He just ran into me.”
As they put the 28-year-old man into an ambulance, Wilderson thought he might be drunk.
“I thought he was intoxicated, but the sheriff’s officer said he wasn’t,” he said.
The accident report listed two contributing factors — following too closely and distraction by cellphone.
Carrie Keeler said she, too, sometimes uses her cellphone while driving.
She was one of four drivers who were sitting at the stop light at 55th South and Broadway on Oct. 9, 2009, when a southbound Toyota plowed into them.
Keeler was knocked out and awoke in an ambulance. Next to her was the 46-year-old man who had been driving the Toyota.
“He was like, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I was on the phone,’ ” Keeler said. “He said he was on the phone and wasn’t paying attention.
“I had like 30 staples in my head and took off work for about a week. My car was totaled.”
The accident report listed two contributing factors: Careless driving and distraction by cellphone.