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Distracted Driving Monday July 23, 2012

DRIVING DISTRACTED

Where I live, like many other places, it's illegal to text or use your cellphone while you're driving, unless you're on a handsfree device. But on a recent walk down our busy main drag, I decided to see how many drivers obeyed that particular law. Surprisingly few, by the way.

And I wondered whether the law, well-intended as it may be, is really an effective one.

Yes, driving requires concentration and diligence, and anything that distracts a driver from the task at hand is dangerous to everyone around them. But the key word there is "anything". Look at cars and car commercials these days. There's voice-activated climate control and multimedia. There's GPS and OnStar, traffic alerts and consoles that make a commercial aircraft look positively minimalist. To say nothing of your friends bickering in the back seat.

How many times have you fiddled with the radio, or a CD while driving and then when you put your eyes and mind back on the road, you said to yourself, "How long did I have my eyes off the road ahead. Boy was that a dumb thing to do. Good thing the guy in front of me didn't stop and good thing the road didn't curve."

How often do you program your GPS while driving. Look at a map while driving. Look for a house number, while driving. Sneeze, while driving. Yawn while driving. Daydream while driving. Look over at the person you are talking to, while driving. You see what I mean.

Humans are imperfect. Car manufacturers are well aware of this, and are now making cars with blind-spot warning systems and backup cameras. Volvo's now introduced an airbag on the OUTSIDE of the car to protect pedestrians HIT by cars. But there's only so much they can do.

I'm not sure that more laws are the way to cut back on the carnage on the roads. Oh, I absolutely believe that texting and using handheld devices while driving should be prohibited. And that "driving while distracted" should be ticketed or charged. But charges usually come AFTER the fact. And there's no way to legislate - or prevent - a driver from sneezing, coughing, or even having a serious medical emergency behind the wheel. So what am I suggesting? The old principle of defensive driving.

If you and I - and hopefully enough other people - are continuously aware that any other car on the road could well be in the control of some idiot looking up sports scores on his phone, eating a burger, or putting on makeup... we can be better prepared for it. Personally, I drive with the mindset that everyone else on the road is a menace to me, I have to watch out for them, and I have to know where the safest spot to be is. It's worked out well for me so far.

A bit of an aside - A Massachusetts teenager was recently sent to jail for a fatal accident he caused, likely by texting while driving. I seriously wonder whether he'd consider a lengthy ban on owning a mobile phone to be a greater punishment. But that's a topic for another commentary.