Could dropped cellphones contribute to rash of crashes?

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – With careless driving a factor in several crashes in St. Johns County in recent years, the Florida Highway Patrol is investigating whether cellphone dead zones could be contributing to the number of crashes in the area.

Residents in the growing county report there are many areas where mobile calls drop.

"I had to get a booster," said St. Johns County resident Bob Smith, who lives about a mile off Interstate 95.

Responses poured in when the question was asked on the News4Jax Facebook page:

"Bunch of dead handover zones from cell towers."
"It drops the call every time we cross over 207 on I-95."
“It’s the Bermuda Triangle Phenomenon."

This becomes a safety issue when a driver tries to re-establish a call that was dropped.

Texting while driving is not legal in Florida, but phone calls are allowed. Still, if you cause a crash due to dialing, it’s your fault.

"Redialing a cellular call is allowed, However, that is an unsafe action, so we encourage people to drive as safely as possible," FHP Sgt. Dylan Bryan said. "We call it a triple threat. Your eyes are off the road; your hands are usually off the wheel and your mind's off driving. And usually, in those types of scenarios, most people have traveled over the length of a football field blind."

Since the beginning of 2016 only seven of 579 crashes FHP has investigated on Interstate 95 in St. Johns County have been proven to be due to cell phones causing distracted driving. But Bryan said that it’s often hard to prove that cell phones were the direct cause without a subpoena for phone records, so the actual influence of cell phone distractions could be larger than the statistics show.

A website called DeadCellZones.com tracks the issue and it shows a few bad spots in St. Johns County. Some of its data is crowdsourced, so users can upload where they have dropped calls.

Computer and technology expert Chris Hamer said there are many reasons why calls can drop -- everything from too many people in rural areas with not enough cell towers to new buildings blocking cell signals.

"It’s a very complicated system that involves handing off one user from one cell tower to the next cell tower, and sometimes that process breaks down," Hamer said. "Or if you’re on the fringes of the reception zone of one tower, you get a degraded signal. And with more of a digital communication, any serious discrepancy between transmitted and received data, the connection will drop."

Hamer said that cell companies are aware every time a call drops, and if there are enough dropped calls in one area, they may put in a new tower or look to improve existing ones.

The FHP is partnering with other agencies to determine the extent of the problem and what can be done about it.


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