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home : opinions : opinions May 28, 2016

8/31/2013 2:01:00 PM
Commentary: The epidemic of distracted driving
By: Cokie & Steven V. Roberts

Many high school students returning to classes this fall will find a new topic added to their curriculum: the dangers of distracted driving. Or to put it in blunt terms a teenager might grasp: Texting kills.

AT&T, in cooperation with three other communications companies, has commissioned a 35-minute video from noted filmmaker Werner Herzog. It tells the stories of four people whose lives were damaged forever by a second or two of inattention. By the seductive lure of technology.

A shorter version is being distributed to 40,000 high schools, and every one should make it mandatory viewing. To be crass here: If you insist on texting while at the wheel and wrap yourself around a telephone pole in the process, OK, you brought that on yourself. You made a decision and live with the consequences.

But Herzog's video is so powerful because it focuses on the bystanders, the innocent victims of the distracted drivers. The young football player, walking down a street holding hands with his sister, who is now confined to a wheelchair. The three Amish children killed when a van smashed into their family's horse-drawn buggy.

Driving is the most dangerous thing most of us do every day, maybe ever. And we have a long record in this country of requiring innovations that make driving safer. Auto companies were forced against their will to install airbags. Drivers now buckle seat belts automatically, if only to silence the annoying signal that goes off when they don't. Driving drunk is now socially and morally unacceptable.

Now it's time to focus on the perils of technology. If anything, it's even more dangerous than alcohol. Numerous studies have shown that texters get absorbed in conversations, lose track of time and become unguided missiles of destruction.

Car and Driver magazine, for example, rigged a car with a red light to tell drivers when to brake. For unimpaired drivers, the reaction time was about a half second. Drinking added four feet of reaction time; reading emails added 36 feet; sending a text, 70 feet.

In 2011, 200,000 crashes involved drivers who were texting, estimates the National Safety Council. Newsday quotes researchers at the Cohen Children's Medical Center who calculate that texting causes 3,000 deaths and 300,000 injuries among teenagers every year -- more than the number maimed or murdered in alcohol-induced incidents.

Ray LaHood, the former Secretary of Transportation, vehemently decries what he calls the "epidemic" of distracted driving and blames the way new technologies are made and marketed. The message pushed in pervasive ads: Be wired or be weird. Unplugging is uncool.

"The problem in America is our cellphones are, in a sense, like alcohol," he told The New York Times. "We're hooked on them and can't put them down when behind the wheel of the car, when we're driving. (We) can't put them down, anyplace, anytime, anywhere."

So what can be done? Laws are a start. Beginning with Washington state in 2007, 41 states now prohibit text messaging for all drivers; six others apply a ban to novice drivers and three to school bus drivers. Twelve states also ban hand-held cellphones and many are adding a "primary enforcement" provision, which means that cops can stop you merely for talking or texting. They don't need another reason, like reckless driving.

A second answer is technology itself. Apps are now increasingly available that disable a phone when a car is in motion. But drivers won't buy or use them unless something more basic changes -- cultural norms.

The whole experience with drunk driving is very instructive. It took a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of deaths, but eventually the principle was widely established: Don't drink and drive. That has not yet happened with texting.

"We have some very strong taboos against drinking and driving," Dr. Andrew Adesman of the Cohen Center told Newsday. "Kids don't drink and drive every day. But some kids are out there texting and driving seven days a week -- and they admit it."

That's why AT&T is doing a very good thing by sponsoring the Herzog film. Communications companies helped create the culture of constant connectivity and now they have an obligation to temper it a bit. So do the car companies that now cram their vehicles with the latest electronic devices.

"At the end of the day, we are trying to save lives," says Michelle Kuckelman, a spokesman for AT&T. That's a goal worth praising and promoting.

(Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.)

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Reader Comments

Posted: Saturday, September 14, 2013
Article comment by: My 2 Cents

Maybe you wouldn't be going to so many funerals of your fellow bicyclist if you didn't think you owned the road. I am a law abiding citizen and I don't know how many times I have come around a blind corner to find a bicyclist in the middle of the road. I have talked to an officer of the law and if I should hit one of the stupid people, even though I am doing the speed limit or under, I get a ticket. If that person dies from the accident I go to jail. I miss out on my kids life because someone on a bicycle had to ride in the middle of the road.

I think that all bicyclist need to purchase insurance and tag and license their bicycles if they are going to be out on the highways. Why should they get special privilage when they can do just as much damage to a vehicle.

Posted: Saturday, September 14, 2013
Article comment by: Genuine Information

I understand what the law says. That doesn't trump basic physics: my auto trumps your bike every time in a collision. If you insist on traveling the same roads as cars use your head: pay attention to your surroundings, obey traffic laws (and don't say you do, I've yet to see a cyclist who does), and keep up with the flow of traffic if there is no bike path. It's really quite simple, and yet no cyclist seems to even try to do any of those things.

Posted: Saturday, September 14, 2013
Article comment by: Genuine Information

I understand what the law says. That doesn't trump basic physics: my auto trumps your bike every time in a collision. If you insist on traveling the same roads as cars use your head: pay attention to your surroundings, obey traffic laws (and don't say you do, I've yet to see a cyclist who does), and keep up with the flow of traffic if there is no bike path. It's really quite simple, and yet no cyclist seems to even try to do any of those things.

Posted: Saturday, September 14, 2013
Article comment by: Slater Slater

Check their cells for usage during an accident.
Fatal accident $10,000 fine 6 months in jail.
Fender bender $5000.00 fine four week ends in jail.That should slow the usage dramatically.

Posted: Saturday, September 14, 2013
Article comment by: @ bob Loblaw


C'mon. Think about it. Just for a minute.

The cyclists you deride are, for the most part, working people who own homes, drive automobiles, buy gasoline and other products, and who therefore pay the same (some more...some less) taxes that you do.

Talk about smug and arrogant.

Posted: Saturday, September 14, 2013
Article comment by: Bob Loblaw


Maybe if you cyclists just kept yourselves to using the roads you pay for with your taxes, it would all work out.

Oops, only motorists pay gasoline taxes to maintain the roads. Never mind, keep up your smug, arrogant behavior!

Posted: Friday, September 13, 2013
Article comment by: @ Genuine Information

You have it wrong, and that seems to be habitual with you.

I say, the flip-side is that elitist, smug arrogant, lazy, unthinking, ignorant non-cyclists such as you, sir/madam, should get your heads out of your patooties and learn that bicycles have every right to use roads and highways.

Saying otherwise makes you sound dumb.

Here, un-ignorant yourself: http://www.cazbike.org/docs/AZ_Bike_Law.pdf

Posted: Sunday, September 8, 2013
Article comment by: Dave Freeman


Over 20 years as a roadie before moving to Cottonwood, and I have yet to wheel my road bike out of the garage. The roads and conditions here are just not conducive or safe for roadies brother.

Buy yourself a mountain bike and come out and play in the dirt. No, it's not the same, but with a little effort and time, you'll love it. It's much safer than riding on these roads.

Posted: Sunday, September 8, 2013
Article comment by: Genuine Information

Mr Wyeman -

The flip-side is that elitist, smug cyclists should realize that glorified children's toys have no business being used on roads and highways.

Posted: Saturday, September 7, 2013
Article comment by: The New Verde County

I feel that the police should be cracking down on those that talk text and carry on while driving. I am totally against the new autos that come equipted with DANGEROUS distraction. KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE ROAD AT ALL TIMES. PERIOD.

Posted: Thursday, September 5, 2013
Article comment by: Stan Wyeman

Weary of going to the funerals of cyclists killed by motorists. God help us active bicycle riders as if we didn't already have dangers on every ride with those hulking speeding pollution producing behemoths and the many careless people who drive them.

Posted: Monday, September 2, 2013
Article comment by: They should make it a law

They should make it a law NO PHONES WHILE DRIVING. I can't tell you how many people we see talking on the phone, smoking a cigarette, and trying to steer their vehicle.

Get off the phone people or get off the road. There is no phone call that is so important that you need to risk your life, the lives of your passengers, and your fellow motorists.

We've even seen a guy watching a movie driving down the highway. How stupid is that?! Until these vehicles have auto-pilot, just stop already.

Posted: Saturday, August 31, 2013
Article comment by: Carl Nye

Yet, not a word of disapproval about the video screens prominent on the dashboard of new cars that can act like a touch-screen computer. You have to look at them to see what to touch. And how about the wonderful GPS maps they display? Can you read a map on your dashboard and watch the road at the same time? I certainly agree that texting is distracting, but drivers being distracted by one thing or another has always been with us. Back in the old days of bench-style front seats (as opposed to individual front seats) I remember guys and girls sitting so close together that it couldn't help but be a distraction. In every case, it remains the responsibility of the driver to pay attention and ignore distractions. Like the old song said, "keep your mind on your driving and your hands on the wheel, and keep your roving eyes on the road ahead..."

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