We're seeing a greater and greater trend for this sort of stuff. There's no doubt about it that distractions are growing. —University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer
SALT LAKE CITY — Taylor Sauer was the kind of person who always wanted to help those around her.
"She was just one of those people that everyone turned to when they were having a bad day because they just knew that Taylor would make them feel better about what was going on in their life," her uncle Brad Warr said.
The 18-year-old college freshman was the kind of friend who would give a classmate a ride back to Utah State University in Logan, which she did Saturday before beginning the return trip to her home in Caldwell, Idaho.
The one-time high school salutatorian apparently passed the time on the long drive by communicating with others on Facebook.
"I can't discuss this matter now. Driving and facebooking is not safe! Haha," she posted on the social networking website Facebook at 8:48 p.m.
Moments later, Sauer was dead, killed after the Saturn Vue she was driving collided with a tanker truck and was then hit by a semi truck moments later.
Police said the crash remained under investigation, and they would not confirm if distracted driving played a factor. But Sauer's family has its own opinions.
"We know through Taylor's Facebook account that she was actively in a conversation 12 to 15 minutes before the accident occurred," Warr said. "We know that Taylor had done that in the past, and we know, as a family, that that probably or may have contributed to the accident."
A study by University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer found that talking on a cellphone while driving leads to an impairment level equivalent to that of drunkenness. When texting, an individual is twice as impaired, the 2006 study concluded.
"It's really unfortunate," Strayer said of Sauer's death. "We're seeing a greater and greater trend for this sort of stuff. There's no doubt about it that distractions are growing."
According to the most recent data released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2009, distracted driving accounted for about 16 percent of the year's fatal crashes. In total, there were 30,797 fatal crashes and 4,898 of those crashes involved distracted drivers, killing 5,474 people.
Distracted driving is defined as anything that diverts the attention of the driver. The largest percentage of the 5,474 killed, 16 percent, involved people age 20 and younger.
The five-member National Transportation Safety Board issued a unanimous recommendation last month that all states impose a ban on cellphone use while driving, including communication on hands-free devices. The measure would be more stringent than legislation in place in any state, including Utah, which passed its own careless driving law in 2009.
State Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clinton, sponsored the bill that was signed into law by then Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and said it was expansive enough to include all methods of electronic communication.
"That would be any postings on social networks along with email or texting, anything electronic that you do in your car from a PDA, phone or computer," he said Tuesday.
He said the law does not require any changes because it already applies to programs like Twitter and Facebook. He said the real problem is getting people to obey the law that is already in place.
"The laws are there," he said. "The problem is getting people to follow them. It comes down to personal responsibility. Whether you have the law or not, you know it's not safe."
If Sauer was sending text messages or using Facebook while driving, she was not breaking any Idaho laws. Legislation that would ban texting while driving in that state was voted down in the Idaho House of Representatives in both 2010 and 2011.
Utah Highway Patrol trooper Todd Johnson called the statute "another tool" for law enforcement to ensure safe travel on the state's roadways, but also said catching offenders in the act can be a challenge.
"It's difficult to do the enforcement on it because the officer or trooper or police officer needs to be certain that the person is texting and it's hard to tell," he said, adding that a person can legally dial or search for a phone number.
However, if someone is involved in a collision where distracted driving is suspected, troopers can subpoena phone records to determine if using a phone contributed to the crash. Johnson said drivers of all ages use their phones while driving and he doesn't expect usage to go down.
"These electronics are part of our lives and it's going to become more a part of our lives," he said. "What we need to do as drivers, professionals and citizens is discipline ourselves. I mean, be able to disregard that phone call or text … leave it in its holster or, if it's something important, wait. Stop the vehicle and deal with it."
Strayer said advances in technology and the installation of more devices in automobiles are exacerbating the problem. He said that some of those things may improve safety, but most of them will take the driver away from the act of driving.
"Clearly these technologies have a capability of really making the crash risk go up," Strayer said. "I think the problem is a lot of this stuff is flashy and kind of exciting … Just because it's fun to do, doesn't mean it's safe to do."
All you have to do is look at other drivers when they're weaving and running red lights and doing other things that are clearly hazardous and see these drivers are not drunk, they're just intoxicated with technology."
Warr said family members are now preparing for the funeral of his niece on Friday and hoping to make others more aware of the dangers of driving while distracted.
"Whether it be social media or texting — and in our hearts we know that very likely contributed to Taylor's death — we just hope and we expect to take an active role in getting that discussion into the public's eye that those mistakes by young drivers are something that can cost you dearly."