We’ve all experienced this: You’re heading down the highway and the car in front of or beside you is driving erratically, changing speeds, maybe drifting into the other lane.
You fuss at the other driver from the cone of silence in your own vehicle, and as you pass, you see that person staring down into their lap, their eyes off the road.
They must be texting, you tell yourself. And quite often, you’re right.
It is one of the ironic twists that in an era where driving should be safer through technological advances in our vehicles — air bags, anti-lock brakes, now even anti-crash computer alarms —it has instead become less so due to the popularity of hand-held devices and wireless communication.
No, distracted driving isn’t a new problem. From the time fast-food restaurants started putting tops on drink cups and car makers added radios in the dashboard, drivers have found something other than the road to divide their attention. Cassettes, 8-track tapes and CD players later added to that problem. Cellphones then took it to a new level as drivers carried their conversations with them behind the wheel.
But texting opens up a whole new concern, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. While a book on tape or phone conversation might distract us to some extent, they don’t take our eyes off the road for long stretches. Texting behind the wheel is akin to trying to do a newspaper crossword puzzle while you’re flying down the highway at 60 mph plus.
In other words, it’s really stupid.
But if that common sense litmus test isn’t enough, there is data to make the point. Car and Driver Magazine conducted a study in 2009 to measure relative stopping distances for impaired or distracted drivers at a test speed of 35 mph. Those who were legally drunk took an extra 4 feet to apply the brakes. Someone reading an email on a hand-held device went an extra 36 feet. Someone sending a text took an extra 70 feet to stop the vehicle.
That span could mean the difference between avoiding an accident and having one, or suffering a minor fender bender vs. a full-speed collision. Now double that speed to 70 mph on the interstates, and it’s not hard to figure how texting can lead to more frequent and serious accidents.
This is particularly a concern with younger drivers, for obvious reasons. In addition to their lack of experience behind the wheel, teens are even more likely to engage in texting, the preferred form of communication for a new generation.
The Governor’s Office of Highway Safety has provided numbers showing the percentage of teens’ accidents that can be linked to texting or cellphone use. Yet that’s just the small percentage that can be proven to be connected to such behaviors; in many instances, responding officers can’t tell for certain that drivers were distracted by their devices. It likely is a much higher number based on behavior we all observe on our roads. And it’s certain to increase if behaviors don’t begin to change.
This danger is why Georgia is among many states that has cracked down on texting while driving. In 2010, state legislators passed the Caleb Sorohan Act that prohibits this practice. Sorohan was killed in a wreck in December 2009 while texting behind the wheel. His grandmother, Sally Sorohan of Dahlonega, and Caleb’s other family members helped push for such a ban, with her state representative, Amos Amerson, as the law’s chief sponsor.
A demonstration event was held last week, sponsored by Lanier Technical College at the Forsyth Conference Center, to demonstrate the risk. AT&T spokesman Paul Chambers told the Forsyth County News the average text message takes five seconds to type; while that doesn’t seem like very long, on a major highway that timespan is “as though you’ve just driven the length of a football field blindfolded,” he said.
That’s provided you even get that far without hitting something.
Event organizers asked students to pledge not to engage in this dangerous behavior and pass it on to their friends. The lesson: It’s much better to be the scold in this case and prevent attending a teenager’s funeral.
Texting on the road not only endangers those who do it, it puts everyone on the same highway at risk. It is one of the few problems in our lives that is completely within our control.
It’s very simple: Don’t send a text until you’ve left your vehicle. If someone texts you, wait until you’ve completed your trip before answering; they’ll understand. And best not to respond as you’re sitting at a traffic light or stop sign; the temptation to continue the conversation after you start up again might be too great.
We’re all in a hurry these days to get where we’re going, on roads made ever more crowded by our growing population. Any small measures to make those trips safer and prevent a loss of life, or even just a dinged-up bumper, are worth the effort. So let’s put down the smartphones, turn up the radio and enjoy the journey without walking along that dangerous ledge.