An increase in distracted driving is leading to more collisions with power poles and lines, causing outages that disrupt people's lives and threaten lineworkers' safety, a Florida electric cooperative warned in an appeal to its members to help reduce the danger.

“Our local roadways are becoming more dangerous," said Curtis Wynn, CEO of SECO Energy in Sumterville, Florida. The co-op is seeing an increase in vehicle collisions with poles and other electric utility infrastructure, and law enforcement investigators suggest inattentive drivers are contributing to the problem.

“We all need to limit our distractions while driving because it reduces the chances of crashes that can cause deaths, serious injuries and costly damage to utility equipment that serves our communities," said Wynn. “Our No. 1 priority is for all of our SECO employees to return home safely to their families at the end of every workday."

He said there has been an increase in passenger vehicle traffic and more heavy construction vehicles working in the co-op's territory. In July, a dump truck, possibly with its box slightly elevated, hit guy wires connected to one of the co-op's poles. The speed and force of impact were substantial enough to take down three poles, knocking out electricity to 85 homes and businesses served by SECO Energy.

While redundant connections and automation built into the co-op's systems resumed service to 64 of the affected meters, 21 others were out of service for nearly eight hours. Crews repairing the damage braved rain and lightning before service was fully restored.

“Linework is inherently dangerous, but the possibility of injury increases when wind, rain, storms and road traffic are present," said Wynn.

The initial collision was only partially responsible for the resulting damage. According to traffic incident investigators, a second vehicle struck wires that had dropped to near roadway level when the poles collapsed. Neither driver remained at the scene or reported the hazard, so it's possible that the second impact occurred because the motorist failed to recognize the risk or take action to avoid it.

According to the National Transportation Highway Safety Administration, distracted driving played a role in more than 3,500 fatal traffic collisions nationwide in 2021. The federal agency says at least 1,000 people each day are injured as a result of activities that divert drivers' attention.

The “most alarming distraction," according to the agency, is reading or responding to text messages. Drivers who take their eyes off the road for five seconds can travel at least 100 yards if they are moving at 55 mph.

All 50 states now enforce Slow Down-Move Over traffic laws, which require drivers to reduce their speed and switch lanes to protect service technicians, tow truck operators and emergency vehicle operators.

Electric co-ops frequently use bill stuffers, newsletters and social media to urge members to keep safety in mind whenever they see crews working along roadways. That includes being mindful of overhead lines or ground-mounted equipment located above or along roadside utility easements.

Following SECO Energy's July incident, Wynn noted that the outage forced a major industrial account served by the co-op to lose a day's production, and another commercial account was out of service until crews were able to install temporary switches to reroute electricity to its facilities. During much of that work, crews faced the added hazards posed by traffic.