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 by: Bill Oetinger  7/1/2018

Distracted Driving…again

This is going to be a cranky column and a good deal of my crankiness about this subject springs from my suspicion that much of what I write here is going to go right past a lot of my readers. Ho-hum, there he goes again! In fact I suspect many of you will push back against my point of view here with that universal image of, “I don’t care and I don’t want to know!”…covering the ears and bleating, “LA LA LA!” to block out any unwanted input.

The subject is distracted driving and in particular the use of phones or other devices for texting or something similar. Our local paper ran two acticles on this topic recently. One was a report on the increasing occurances of texting while driving and the other was an op-ed entitled, “A novel idea: put your phone down and drive.”

As for the raw stats, a recent study commissioned by auto insurers monitored 4.5 million drivers traveling 7.1 billion miles in the three months from December to February and compared those results with data from a year earlier. Roughly two out of three drivers used a mobile phone at least once during that period. That’s an increase of a whopping 5% from just a year ago. For those who used a phone the duration of the time on the device was four minutes. 

Let’s presuppose an average speed for this car and phone-using driver of 45 mph. Do you know how much ground they will cover in four minutes? Four minutes divided by 60 minutes in an hour times 45 mph…that works out to three miles. A whole bunch of bad things can happen when you have a several thousand pound object hurtling along a busy road with no one at the controls for three miles, especially if so many of the other vehicles on the road also contain distracted drivers.

You say “no one at the controls” is overstating it? According to tests conducted by Car and Driver magazine, drivers who were texting or reading e-mail performed significantly worse than drivers who were legally drunk. Their reaction times were much worse. And yet the penalties for texting, etc are a slap on the wrist compared to the penalties for DUI. According to one of these articles, a first time conviction for texting will net you a fine in California of $159. A first time fine for DUI can be over $1100, plus a supsended license for four months and up to six months in jail, as well as points toward an increase in your insurance rates. There are no points for a texting infraction although a bill has been proposed to change that.

On top of that, statistics appear to show that the cops are not working all that hard to enforce the laws against using mobile phones while driving. While use has skyrocketed, tickets are actually down. Some of that is due to drivers becomong more adept at concealing their bad behavior but some of it is simply reluctance on the part of the cops to nail people for something they like to do themselves or that they think will be hard to prove in court. (So they say, although I don’t know why it should be hard to prove: the phone records are right there. Case closed.)

So what does all this have to do with cycling? I should think that would be obvious. I was hit by a car a few years back while on an otherwise uneventful afternoon ride. I was almost killed or paralyzed (according to my doctors). My back was broken and I was within one millimeter of having my spinal cord severed in my neck. (My head was twisted around backward.) I’m lucky it was a relatively small BMW that hit me; had it been an SUV or truck, you wouldn’t be reading this column. I can’t say the crash took years off my life but it does mean that for however many years I have left, some level of pain will always be a part of my everyday world.

Because I had my bell rung and was not in my right mind, I let the driver leave without collecting her contact info. It was probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever done…or not done. So I cannot know whether she—a 20-something woman—was distracted by phone use. But it seems likely. How else do you explain not seeing a 180-pound, nearly six-foot tall man in a bright white-yellow-blue jersey on a road with not one car or other object in sight? At four in the afternoon on a clear, dry day. Add the fact that younger drivers are the worst offenders when it comes to texting.

But it hardly matters whether that driver was under the influence of phone use. My point is really that when a large car hits a cyclist, almost always nasty things are going to happen, and when a large number of drivers are distracted, sooner or later some of them are going to hit cyclists. Whether or not my driver was distracted, many, many other drivers are, all the time, every day, and the results of encountering them while they’re on the phone can be as bad as what happened to me or a whole lot worse.

All of this is well known. We have all read articles such as the ones I clipped out of my paper and saved as fodder for this column. But the thing that strikes me afresh every time the topic is revisited is this: the problem is getting worse and many people not only shrug off the gravity of the situation, they promote it; they engage in it.  They may acknowledge that it’s a problem but in that “LA LA LA!” denial, they think they are somehow exempt from the equation…that it doesn’t apply to them. Or they assert that they are not a chronic offender: that they will just take this one call, or maybe just sneak a peek to see who it was that called (holding the phone down below the steering wheel to peer at the tiny screen).

We used to say, back in our militant protest days: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. That is exactly the case here. So let’s turn the pronoun from “they” to “you.” I can’t call you out by name, but you know who you are. You know if you are using your phone while driving. I do know a lot of you. I ride around in cars with you while you’re taking a call or fiddling with your on-board nav systems or sound systems or whatever. You scare me half to death. But you laugh at me or simply ignore me as an out-of-touch, fuddy duddy luddite. You are utterly unrepentant about your distracted driving. You tell me to get over it…that this is the new normal.

Sorry…not gonna happen. You are going to continue to hear about it and read about it because it should not be the new normal. You may delude yourself that you can get away with multi-tasking while driving because you haven’t had an accident yet. But the statistics say you will have an accident eventually and that someone will suffer because of it. 

You may shrug off the risk of a $159 traffic fine for texting but can you just as easily shrug off all the possible disasters that might pop up over a distance of three miles while you are busy with your phone? Mothers with babies in strollers. A nice old grandma. Someone’s favorite cat. A very solid light pole or fire hydrant. An 18-wheeler coming the other direction. Not to mention some blameless cyclist. The list of potential catastrophes is endless. Sooner or later one of them is going to have your name on it.

Look, I know how handy our mobile phones are. Where would we be without them? But there is a huge world out there where you can use your phone that doesn’t include using it while driving. I have no patience with and no mercy for drunk drivers, but I do understand that at least for the worst of them, they have a chemical addiction. It’s nobody’s fault but their own that they’re junkies, but at least it explains why they can be plastered at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning. Their free will and better judgment have been bent by their chemical dependency. So what’s your excuse for using a phone in a way that makes you at least as dangerous on the road as a drunk driver? Are you that addicted to your constant connectedness? To not missing any messages or to feeling the need to talk to someone right this minute?

This is the point, as I get my knickers in a twist, where I have to remember that a fairly large percentage of you are going to blow off this tirade. Right or wrong, agree or not, it’s just too damn inconvenient to fess up to the problem…to your problem. I appreciate that no one likes to be scolded; no one wants to admit that their behavior is wrong, that it’s bad for society. So maybe instead of chewing you out, I should turn it around and ask you to picture yourself being on your bike. Is their any cyclist out there who hasn’t seen a driver doing some bonehead move because he or she was miles deep in a phone? Have you ever had a near miss with one of these e-clowns and been tempted to slap your hand on their window and yell, “Hang up and drive!”…? 

Instead of shaming you about your in-car crimes, let’s put you on your bike and see it from that perspective. Try to remember that point of view the next time your phone starts chirping at you while you’re driving. Better yet, turn the damn thing off until you get where you’re going.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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