Unsafe behavior including drunken driving and texting while driving was overwhelmingly the cause of some of Kern County's most serious traffic fatalities over the last three years, according to a new study by doctors at Kern Medical Center.
"These are some hard statistics of behavior we know are associated with a bad outcome," said Ruby Skinner, chief of trauma at the county hospital.
In what the physicians believe is the first study of its kind in Kern County, Skinner, KMC Chief of Surgery Maureen Martin and Adel Shaker of the Kern County coroner's office analyzed 523 traffic fatalities between 2009 and 2012.
The study has yet to be published.
The team only looked at deaths where the cause was a central nervous system injury because that is a known cause of immediate death and has not been the focus of a lot of research, Skinner said.
In most cases, the vicitms being studied died at the scene.
The team studied autopsy findings, toxicology reports and police reports. Of the 523 people killed, 491 were in cars while the rest were on motorcycles. A majority were male. And 80 percent were wearing a seatbelt.
In 53 percent of the deaths, the person was above the legal limit for alcohol, Skinner said. A little less than half, 45 percent, were texting and driving at excessive speeds. And 15 deaths happened during bad weather.
For the texting and speeding category, Skinner said it is difficult to say which factor contributed more the accident, texting or speeding.
Skinner sees the information from the study being used in such preventative efforts such as presentations to high school students.
"This lends evidence to the importance of safe driving practices," Skinner said.
The team plans to present its findings in January at a meeting of the Southern California chapter of the American College of Surgeons. The results will also be published next fall in The American Surgeon journal.
California Highway Patrol Officer Robert Rodriguez said he's not sure about the study's accuracy in terms of texting and speeding deaths. It's difficult to determine if someone was texting before an accident if he or she died, Rodriguez said.
"We have to jump through pretty serious hoops to find that out," he said.
Though it is sometimes difficult to determine if a victim was texting, Skinner said the team looked at all the information available, including police reports that indicated if texting was involved.
Distracted driving, specifically cell phone use, is a serious issue on California's roadways, Rodriguez said. Since California outlawed handheld cell phone use while driving, the CHP has written hundreds of thousands of citations for people doing just that, he said.
Just the other day, Rodriguez said, he pulled over a man who had been texting. The man was stopped at a red light waiting to make a left turn.
While all the cars in front of him turned when the light went green, the man was still fiddling with his phone and did not go, Rodriguez said. The man finally noticed and pulled up, but the light turned red again, and the man got back on his phone.
Rodriguez was right behind him, and the man did not notice, Rodriguez said.
Not knowing what's around you while you're texting is what makes it so dangerous, he said.
If the KMC study's findings are accurate, they are "pretty significant," Rodriguez said.
"Those findings are alarming," he said. "Unfortunately, we still have a problem with texting and driving."