This was a time, not so long ago, when people only did one thing while driving - they drove. They did not try to find they’re favorite radio station, or stuff a Big Mac into their face, or read the newspaper, or talk and text on their phones… they drove, that’s all. Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry remarks, “The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status, or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we all believe that we are above-average drivers.”
Besides being mathematically impossible (only slightly less than half can be “above-average”), it is laughable. Just one short jaunt through town will reveal just how good “average” is and how “bad” the drivers who profess to be above that mark actually are. Perhaps “bad” isn’t the correct term. Maybe if all distractions to the act of driving were removed, many of these accidents waiting to happen would actually be competent operators.
Full disclosure? My driving record is nothing to crow about, and I have had my share mishaps - including those brought about by distraction. Driving, for some of us (most of us?), seems to be second nature… almost part of the autonomic nervous system. Indeed, it seems as if we were born to drive. It’s in our genes. We have become so comfortable behind the wheel that it makes perfect sense to use that otherwise wasted time doing something productive.
According to a 2005 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, almost 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes happen within three seconds of some form of driver distraction. Although using cell phones was the most common distraction, it is not the only one. And the driver’s age has much to do with it. Eighteen to 20 year olds are four times more likely to be in a crash due to distraction as drivers over the age of 35.
I remember a news story about four bicyclists, two couples, riding on a road in the foothills just south of San Jose, Calif. It was a beautiful spring or summer weekend day on a paved road used frequently by recreational cyclists. It must have been 20 years ago now; cell phones weren’t around, compact disks were just emerging. A young girl of 19 or 20 was rounding a turn in a Chevy Blazer on the same road approaching the group of cyclists, but she didn’t know it. She was reaching around behind her seat, fishing for a cassette tape to pop into the stereo.
Seconds later, two cyclists were dead and the other two seriously injured. The driver was not a “bad” person and perhaps not even a “bad” driver. But in that instance of inattention, two lives were cut short and three others permanently altered. It only took a split second. Examples of such tragedy are abundant. Although there are numerous new gadgets and gizmos to take out attention away from the road, it’s not the distraction that is responsible - it’s the distracted.
Laws and proposed laws to regulate cell phone use while driving are all the rage. Let’s assume these laws are successful in reducing the accidents that can be attributable to cell phone distractions. What about the next distraction du jour? Ultimately, it is the operator that should be held responsible. The same laws that apply to drunk driving could be applied to any distraction. Statistically, there is little difference. To those killed by distraction, there is none.