Make your car a no phone zone; that is the pledge on Oprah.com, meant to make the public aware of this deadly habit and put an end to it. According to the Oprah show, devoted to this topic, half a million Americans are injured in accidents caused by those texting and driving 6 thousand were killed. Audience members and home viewers were treated to sites like the headline making commuter train crash where the operator was found to be texting and driving, a school bus accident and footage of a bus driver texting while driving a city bus. Further, avid texters, who were adamant their skills where not impaired by doing this and driving, were put through an obstacle course where they subsequently began weaving all over the road and running over the orange cones. This along with expert testimony from neurologists, who stated the human brain just isn’t wired to be able to do these two things at the same time, as well as guests who had both lost family members or been the cause of tragic fatal accidents, convinced subjects present to stop using their cell phones, blackberries and other electronic devices behind the wheel. On a follow up segment, Oprah correspondent Ali Wentworth took to the streets of a major city, complete with megaphone, spotting people texting and driving; those found engaging in this danger, while stopped in traffic were treated to questions about their habits and an embarrassing lecture on why they should not do it.
Yet the bigger culprit here is distracted driving, distraction in our culture is more and more of a problem not just because of all the technology, but because from the moment a person’s feet hit the floor in the morning to the time they go to bed, they are frantically busy. While we are showering, brushing our teeth we’re running a mental log of our daily routine; we’re thinking about who’s going to pick the kids up from soccer practice, what’s for dinner tonight, the big presentation we have at work, that fact that the boss is mad at us or at things in general, the bills that need to go in the mail today or this week, in too many cases how they will get paid, the errands we have to run after work, the things we need to pick up at the grocery store. On average Americans are working more hours for less money; wages have never kept up with the cost of living, however today they stagnate or go down rather than go up, even slightly.
Thanks growing workplace trends, the higher paying, closer to living wage jobs being those with 16 hour days as project mangers exc., compounded by the effects of the recession, people feel like they must be “on call” all the time in order to keep their jobs. The result people have less time with their families, less personal down time and are getting less sleep. Or did we honestly think that it was parents playing with their PDA that caused them to leave their infants and toddlers in the back of a freezing cold or overly hot car? No, it was distraction; the perpetual distraction we are forced to succumb to in order to function in this society. Further, there are the studies that reveal not only are Americans sacrificing sleep in favor of all the things they have to do in a day, carving out a meager social life, spending time with the family or working extra hard to keep their job, but that sleepy driving is almost equivalent to drunk driving. The fact is much of diver inattention has nothing to do with texting and driving or any use of electronic gadgets while behind the wheel.
For this reason banning cellphone use while diving is likely not to have the outcome proponents think it will, while it makes sense, there is both precedent and at least one study compiled out of the Midwest that suggests banning texting and driving did nothing to reduce the number of accidents on roadways. The fact remains that there were car phones before cell phones, regular cellphones before they came with texting ability and nowhere near the accidents or fatalities. And, if there is at least one study concluding bans don’t help; there must be something else going on. Another fact getting lost in all of this, people have been doing various kinds of multi-tasking behind the wheel for decades; adjusting radio dials, tape or CD controls, climate controls have caused their share of accidents too, but no one is lobbying for the removal of your cars heat, air conditioning, even your stereo or CD player.
People for the last 3.5 decades have been eating and driving but no one is lobbying to close the drive-through windows of our most popular fast food restaurants or handing out tickets to people who pack things from home to eat on the way to work; on the contrary, cup holders have been standard in the most stripped down car models for at least 20 years and in 2009 one invention to hit the market was a French fry holder that can be installed on your cars dashboard. Why, because they know people are going to drink their morning coffee on the way to work, their power drink or soft drink with lunch on the way back to the office, and they know that it’s safer to have a cup holder onboard than to spill hot coffee on yourself and in the mayhem cause an accident. The French fry holder was likely created out of one or several people’s annoyance with the awkwardness of holding a French fry container, trying to eat them and drive at the same time, but it has no less the effect on safety, that with this holder people will have more of their hands free to put on the wheel.
In reality drivers have been getting away with doing some of the most mundane to the most bizarre things behind the wheel for years. In addition to the in-car distractions like CD players, heat and air controls, the common fixture of eating meals in transit to their destinations, putting on makeup, changing clothes and using a battery operated shaver are top on the list. One woman was seen by a cab driver with one hand on the wheel and one foot presumably managing the pedals, the other foot was on the dash and the other hand painting her toenails. Someone else encountered a woman weaving all over the road, come to find out, when he pulled up along side her, she was changing her babies diaper as she drove, another woman was breast feeding her baby at a minimum of 35mph. Individuals have been seen engaging in self-pleasure, using sex toys, even intercourse while driving, hammering home the point that things, other than gadgets, impeded driving.
But before we go waging war on cup holders, fast food places and handing out ticket after ticket for the harebrained activities seem through car windows, we have to understand that one, even with all these things injuries, fatalities are far lower than anyone would expect, and two, you can be distracted by anything. When correspondent Ali Wentworth took up the Oprah challenge describing the experience she talked about slipping once then telling her kids if they saw her using her cellphone or blackberry they were allowed to scream a particular phrase. She talked about the addictive nature of the technology and also talked about making time in your car a different space, suggested listening to books on tape, meditative materials. The problem is the assumption that you can’t be distracted by a book on tape, that while listening to your favorite murder mystery and finding out who done it you can’t be shocked and fail to stop for a pedestrian, that meditative materials can’t make you unfocused and cause an accident, self improvement exercises can’t have you thinking about and dealing with emotions you should not when operating a motor vehicle. However removing all noise can likewise have a detrimental effect as you drive down long stretches of highway or zone out on some sort of autopilot.
Despite what rid Ms. Wentworth of her “need” to text and dive screaming can startle you, cause you to hit the break or the gas suddenly. Her megaphone display in itself was dangerous as it distracted passing drivers who looked to see what she was doing, strained to hear what she was bellowing, took the chance of startling stopped drivers potentially causing the already mentioned hazards. In addition, distractions do not need to be tangible things; people can be distracted by the reprimand they got from work, the bad news the boss gave at a staff meeting, tension about going home to a nagging spouse or troubled kid, have a fight with their boyfriend get in their car driving down the road and not see the stoplight, the pedestrian, because they are replaying events over in their head. In the car, distractions don’t always mean gadgets; you can be dealing with fighting kids in the backseat, have a fight with your significant other about directions, have a fight with the one friend you have in the car, have the contents of your messy car roll under the pedals, or your purse come undone in the same type scenario, your kid drop something that land in the driver’s side floorboard, and not see all of what is on the road.
That bringing us back to the details of the Oprah show, debunking the neurologists who claim the human brain is not wired to be able to text and drive, proving you can’t do a lot of things and drive. Also debunking what they say are the thousands, if not millions, who text and drive who have never caused an accident or even wrecked their car. In contrasting the injury and fatality statistics, 2.3 million are injured in dunk driving related accidents as opposed to half a million to texting 6 thousand die but over 43 thousand die to drunk driving. Looking at the driving experiment, yes it was worse when texting was added but these people knew there were no other cars on the road only orange cones and a foam representation of a human being to navigate around which has a subconscious effect on the outcome, as people know there is no real danger.
Further, because data on texting and driving has only been complied for roughly 2 years, we don’t know how many of these driver inattention accidents were caused by owners of the now recalled Toyota cars with suddenly accelerating gas pedals. Other possible culprits include prescription sleeping pills; the drug Ambien has reputation of causing sleep walking, sleep eating and yes, sleep driving. Recently a woman was giving a traffic citation for plowing into a fire hydrant in the middle of the night, having no memory of it later; a man on a plane was charged with a felony after he went berserk under its influence. The danger involved in texting and diving can come down to how you text and drive; many do it stopped at lights or in big city bumper to bumper traffic, where if they are moving, it is no more than 10 miles per hour. In these cases the worst thing that is going to happen is either some guy laying on his horn, as the light turns green and you don’t move, a single finder bender or a series of them, causing a multi- car pile up. You may be the bane of your cities traffic department, you may be late for work, but the injury chances are low and the possibility of death next to zero.
Outrage has been expressed, and rightly so, regarding the commuter train operator, a school bus driver and other public transportation operators caught texting and driving. However we don’t need a law to deal with these individuals; they should be fired and their licenses revoked because there was no reason for them to be texting personal business on company time. There is a higher expectation in driving public transportation because kids don’t always have a choice about riding a bus; people don’t always choose whether or not they take public transit. Charges ranging from reckless driving to manslaughter can be brought against them, depending on the city or state, and they should be criminally or civilly held accountable not just because there were injuries, medical bills, fatalities, but because when you get the licensure required to operate such things you are taking on responsibility for the safety of your many passengers. You are saying to the public not only am I qualified but I understand that responsibility.
Oprah stated she wanted to do the show to bring awareness to the subject and get people to make their cars no phone zones just as we buckle up for safety, just as we choose designated drivers. Yet in spite of the latter 2 things, we still have people who don’t wear their seatbelts, regardless of the law in some states, we still have people who drive drunk, regardless of the law. What really needs to stop is the presumption of absolute safety, the idea that with anti-lock breaks, air bags and all the safety features we are 100% safe. We need to remember that there is always going to be some risk in operating a motor vehicle; remember there is a reason it requires a license to drive one. By all means ban texting and driving either by your own personal standards or fighting for legislation to do so, just don’t expect it to have a marked change on roadways.