Driving Like Crazy

Last Week, VPR’s Vermont Edition hosted a program devoted to recent legislative efforts designed to combat cell phone usage in cars. Why there is any sort of debate over this issue is beyond me, but apparently there is quite a bit of discussion over whether or not this sort of thing is necessary or right for government to do to individual citizens.

A while ago, I read and reviewed Tom Vanderbilt’s book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), which is, as the title suggests, about driving and how we drive. Prior to reading the book, I was not thrilled with the idea of a cell phone law in Vermont – it’s intrusive, it’s problematic and above all, it is possible to drive, talk, text or so forth while driving. That’s not the case, far from it, and recent deaths in the state suggest that this is only the start to a larger issue in the state.

Vanderbilt notes that studies show several things: it doesn’t take long for a driver to be distracted, and that even small amounts of time without one’s eyes on the road could mean the difference between continuing home and ending up in a hospital. While on the road, Vanderbilt explains, the driver is constantly taking in information about their surroundings – what’s in front of them, to the sides and the road conditions. Modern conveniences such as radios, CD players, and connections for phones only add to the things that drivers have to contend with. Furthermore, the human brain is fundamentally incapable of processing everything that comes in, and mental awareness of one’s surroundings drops. There have been occasions while driving that I’ve spoken on the phone or peaked at a text message and find myself further down the road, automatically steering around well known corners, but with little recollection exactly to what I just did. The same is true with any task that involves thinking. In today’s culture, drivers have far more to distract them on the road, and that’s what is getting scary.

The rise in texting (I remember reading something recently that noted that the average teenager sends around 40,000 words a month in text form) makes this all the more scary, because as drivers are increasingly spending some of their time looking at their phone, reading a message and then thinking about and typing a response out, their eyes are not where they are supposed to be: on the road. Normally, I would advocate personal responsibility for the driver and say that if they crash because they weren’t looking, well, it’s their own fault. However, the roadways are populated by everyone else on the road, in all directions, and the actions of one driver not paying attention can mean dire consequences for someone else on the roadway.

So what is the solution? Well, as pro-life people naively state: abstinence works. Well, yes, it does, but holding people to that sort of thing doesn’t necessarily work as well. Keeping teenagers away from cell phones (and adults, for that matter), is a huge problem, and merely telling people to turn off the phone and keep their eyes on the road isn’t necessarily going to work, even with a stiff fine from police officers. A law needs to be put into place, no doubt about that, with stiff penalties for any driver caught doing this sort of thing. But, in addition to that, money needs to be spent on educating drivers, young and old alike on one simple fact: driving is the most dangerous thing that you can do on a regular basis. Taken out of a normal, everyday context, you are climbing into a rolling collection of metal parts, fueled by a highly combustible fluid and set off along roadways with more people doing the same thing, at high speeds. If that isn’t enough to freak you out, now imagine that nobody is looking where they’re going.

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