view full story- LSU studies cellphone use while driving - School positioning itself as a national expert on road safety
Just how unsafe is cellphone use while driving? LSU aims to come up with an answer.
For the past year and a half, LSU researchers have been inviting people to the College of Engineering to test their driving skills. Inside the building, volunteers strap themselves into the university’s virtual driving simulator. It looks like a Ford Focus minus the wheels. It’s equipped with a series of cameras, projectors and screens designed to simulate realistic driving conditions. It’s part of LSU’s plan to become one of the go-to universities in the country to study issues that affect driving safety, from road conditions to texting to the impact of medication on a driver.
Within the next month LSU should come out with the results of its study of “Distracted Driving and Associated Crash Risks.” So far, researchers have found that a large gap exists between driver safety while talking on a cellphone versus driver safety while texting. The study should be a timely addition to the available data that exists as states and municipalities consider different laws to make roadways safer.
John LeBlanc, executive director of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission, said the epidemic of distracted driving is growing as technology expands. The problem is concentrated mostly among young people, he said.
At any given time, research shows that more than 660,000 people are using their cellphone or another electronic device while driving, LeBlanc said.
One problem is that Louisiana and other states don’t yet differentiate certain types of distracted driving on crash reports — namely talking on a cellphone while driving versus texting while driving.
According to preliminary results from LSU’s study, it’s an important distinction. Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Sherif Ishak explains that volunteer drivers drove a series of simulation runs where they were instructed to do certain tasks such as follow a car in front of them. At the same time, the drivers would receive phone calls where they were expected to hold their end of a conversation while completing the task on the simulator. Other times, drivers were instructed to send and respond to texts while driving the simulator. They were judged on how well they maintained an acceptable speed, whether they had abrupt moments of acceleration and braking, which would signal distracted driving, and whether they could stay in the proper lane without drifting from side to side.
“We found that the cell phone conversations didn’t reveal any significant difference in driving behavior,” Ishak said. “Our subjects were able to really manage.”
Texting while driving, however, showed that subjects had significant trouble driving safely while texting, especially when it came to staying in the proper lane, Ishak said.
“They were veering out of their lanes a lot, moving right to left,” he said. “We also found that the distraction lasted 3.35 seconds beyond when the texting stopped. One possible explanation is that it takes that long to change the focus from concentrating on the phone to concentrating on the road.”
That 3.35 seconds of distraction equates to a car traveling a distance of 200 feet while cruising at 40 miles-per-hour, Ishak said.
Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Louisiana Legislature have tried to clamp down on distracted driving in recent years, passing a law in 2010 that made it a primary offense for drivers to be texting or emailing while driving. Previously, a driver could be cited only if stopped for another traffic violation. This year, lawmakers passed a law banning drivers from tweeting, posting on Instagram or using any other social networks while operating a moving vehicle. Repeated efforts to ban handheld cell phone use while driving have failed.
Louisiana State Police Capt. Doug Cain says texting and other distracted driving continues to be a significant safety hazard throughout the state. Crash and fatality records don’t necessarily reflect the seriousness of the problem because troopers often cite drivers for behavior that resulted from the texting, such as improper lane usage, careless operation or reckless operation.
“The enforcement is getting done,” Cain said. “It’s not necessarily indicated in the texting while driving,” on the crash reports.
However, in cases that result in serious injuries or deaths where cell phone use is suspected, troopers subpoena phone records to determine whether the cell phone was in use at the time of the crash, he said.
“All it takes is a few seconds of distracted driving for something bad to happen,” Cain said. “If you’re driving through a neighborhood and a ball rolls in front of your car, if you’re distracted, it just takes a few seconds to hit that child chasing that ball.”
Amid the growing confusion over whether Louisiana’s litany of gun crimes violates its residents’ turbocharged right to bear arms, the state Supreme Court has decided it will try to settle one of the most consequential questions: Does it remain constitutional to charge a person with a high-grade felony for having a gun at the same time as illegal drugs, no matter what kind of drugs or how much?
Rico Webb, a 22-year-old caught in a car with one marijuana cigar and a gun, points to a state constitutional amendment passed last year, applauded by conservatives and the National Rifle Association, that for the first time in American history declared gun ownership a fundamental right in Louisiana, subject to the same level of judicial scrutiny as free speech and voter equality.
The amendment provoked an avalanche of legal challenges to the state’s major gun-crime laws. At least three judges have declared various criminal statutes unconstitutional.
The Louisiana Supreme Court is tasked with sorting out the mess.
The high court already is considering the statute that forbids certain felons from possessing firearms. It heard oral arguments last month, and its decision is pending.
In the meantime, the court agreed on Friday to take up Webb’s challenge to the law that punishes the possession of guns and drugs with five to 10 years in prison without the possibility of parole.
The court has not yet announced when it will consider a third major gun law, the one that legal watchers believe is most likely to crumble under the amendment: the requirement that a person have a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
The constitutional amendment sailed through the Legislature last year and received overwhelming support from voters at the ballot box. Its proponents, both inside and outside the Legislature, defended the measure as a guarantee of freedom if federal gun protections were to somehow fall.
But critics described it as an unnecessary law that solved no problem. Louisiana already had among the most liberal gun laws in the nation. All the amendment has accomplished, they say, is widespread constitutional chaos that could endanger public safety and waste hundreds of courthouse hours on the taxpayers’ dime.
The measure was pitched by conservative legislators as a state equivalent to the Second Amendment. But in practice, it goes far past the protections offered by the U.S. Constitution.
The amendment erased language in the law that allowed the Legislature to prohibit carrying a concealed weapon and specified that, for the first time anywhere in the nation, gun laws would be subject to a “strict scrutiny” test, the highest level of judicial review.
“What the Legislature did is it took discretion away from itself,” said Raymond Diamond, a LSU law professor and Second Amendment scholar. “This pro-gun Legislature voted to bind itself, and future Legislatures that might not be so pro-gun, from undertaking gun control. It has similarly binded local communities in ways that right now we really don’t understand.”
He has described the amendment as “a can of worms.”
It pushed the Louisiana Supreme Court to become the first in America to analyze criminal gun statutes using a strict scrutiny test.
That test presumes that every person has the right to be armed. Any law that seeks to infringe that right must pass a grueling legal test that kills more than two-third of the laws that come up against it.
The state must show that the law serves a compelling government interest, and that it is so narrowly defined that there is no less restrictive way of achieving that interest.
The arguments against the current statutes are similar, in that they equally dole out “heavy-handed penalties” to vast groups of people.
The drug statute treats people caught with small amounts of marijuana the same as those with large amounts of more serious drugs. The felon-with-a-gun statute equates burglars with murderers. It includes a list of 150 felony offenses, characterized as drug or violence crimes, and says that anyone convicted of any of them is barred from possessing a firearm for 10 years after being released from prison.
The state supports that law by arguing that those with a demonstrated capacity to break the law are more dangerous when armed. Its position on the drugs-and-gun statute is the same: Drugs beget violence and guns make volatile situations deadly.
But Webb’s attorney, New Orleans public defender Colin Reingold, argues that the state cannot prove, under a strict-scrutiny test, that a single marijuana blunt makes him more dangerous when armed than anyone else, particularly since the possession of alcohol and guns is not equally restricted.
“The true danger of a firearm comes not from the manner in which its owner keeps or bears it, but rather from how the citizen uses the weapon,” Reingold wrote in his appeal to the Supreme Court.
Webb, who has no criminal record, was arrested on Sept. 10, 2012, when police pulled over his girlfriend for having a broken taillight. He confessed to police that he had the blunt in his backpack and said the gun on the floorboard was his, too.
The gun was legal and the marijuana alone would have amounted to a misdemeanor, prosecuted in Municipal Court and typically punished with a fine and probation. But combined, the gun and pot became a felony with a minimum sentence of five years and a maximum of 10 years, without the possibility of parole.
Webb appealed his charge to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which announced on Friday it would hear the case.
Over the years, the courts will have to sort out which of the 80 other gun crimes on Louisiana law books remain constitutional under the new amendment.
The state has become an experiment.
“This is an exciting time because there is some risk that some of the laws will be declared unconstitutional,” Diamond said. “ Everybody’s very interested to see what the court’s going to do with it.”
$24M crime lab construction begins - Forensic center set to open in 18 months
A state-of-the-art crime lab should help speed investigations in 29 parishes. Officials broke ground Friday on the 86,000-square-foot North Louisiana Forensic Science Center, which is being constructed using $24 million in capital outlay funds from the state. Construction is expected to take 18 months.
“I can tell you this is a forensic scientist’s dream,” crime lab director Jimmy Barnhill said. “I can promise you this is going to be a cutting-edge forensics facility.”
In February, The Times published a report detailing lengthy efforts — and an eight-year-old promise — to build a crime lab and the hurdles that came along the way. In order to move forward, construction hinged on a decision by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office to better prioritize the project. The same day The Times’ report was released, the new crime lab was approved to advertise for bids.
“This is a facility that will serve more than 1.2 million people in a 29-parish region and shows what can happen when law enforcement leaders come together and see what they can do for the good of not only their parish, but those around them,” said Jindal, who attended the ceremony.
Once complete, the new center will house North Louisiana Criminalistics Laboratory’s current operations and provide new services, including forensic pathology and forensic toxicology. Those new services are expected to bring approximately 30 new jobs at an average annual salary of $65,000.
In addition, the facility will provide training to law enforcement agencies such as crime scene investigation for rural departments.
The current lab was built in 1929 in a small, outdated facility off Line Avenue in Shreveport. Due to limitations, the crime lab has a backlog of more than 800 unworked cases needing DNA and firearms analysis. The new facility will speed the processing time on cases such as those while helping keep local dollars in state, the governor said.
Right now, every single one of those 29 parishes is having to send at least some of its evidence out of state to be processed, Jindal said. “That’s money going out of state that now stays in Louisiana while also quickening the processing time for those cases.”
The property, at Linwood at Tulane avenues in Shreveport, is leased from LSU Health Sciences Center. In addition to its work with law enforcement, the facility will be used to teach forensic pathology for the medical school and for master’s and doctorate programs in forensic sciences in its School of Allied Health.
“We have an opportunity to not only add to the beauty of our campus but also enhance our offerings,” said medical school Chancellor Dr. Robert Barish.