Herald Journal Columns
Jan. 9, 2006, Herald Journal

Distracted driving not just a teen issue


The law that became effective Jan. 1 prohibiting cell phone use by some drivers in Minnesota addresses only part of a much larger issue.

The new law makes cell phone use while driving illegal for those with learning permits or provisional licenses.

Drivers in this group were targeted because the accident rate for inexperienced drivers is higher than that of more experienced drivers.

I am not a fan of more government regulation in our lives, but there is no doubt that there is a growing problem on our roads.

Cell phone use is just one component of the distracted driving epidemic that is taking over our roadways.

Driving is a skill, and observation suggests that it is a skill that many people are not very good at.

Spending any amount of time on the road is enough to convince one that there are plenty of incompetent drivers out there, and adding cell phones to the mix does not improve the situation.

It is somewhat disconcerting to see a driver drifting down the road holding a cell phone in one hand and wildly gesticulating in the air with the other (some people seem unable to speak, even on the phone, without using gestures).

And even though commercial drivers may be professionals with a great deal of experience, I must confess to a bit of apprehension when I see a semi-truck making a turn in front of me while the driver has one hand on his cell phone.

Hands-free devices may be an improvement, but far too few people seem to use them.

It should also be noted that some research has shown no difference in injury crash risk between hand-held and hands-free cell phone use.

One trend that is particularly troubling is the increasing number of drivers who think they have to turn their commute into “productive time” by conducting business while behind the wheel.

This can range from making phone calls, to reading documents, to digging around in a briefcase, which can result in the driver being every bit as distracted as a teenager talking to friends while driving.

None of these things improve highway safety.

If you are so busy that you need to get your work done while you are driving, it might be time to re-evaluate your priorities.

Other activities that can lead to distracted driving include reading newspapers or books (reading is a good thing, but not while you are driving), putting on makeup, or fighting with children in the back seat.

There is no end to the bizarre things people seem to do while they should be paying attention to the road.

Advances in automotive technology have resulted in the addition of onboard computers and global positioning system-based direction finders in some vehicles, which provide one more distraction for drivers.

Technology has given us some fun things, but we haven’t quite reached the stage where a Jetson-esque autopilot system can drive our vehicles for us while we kick back and enjoy the ride.

Driving is a skill that requires attention, and drivers need to be constantly monitoring the driving environment. It is not possible to do this effectively when one is concentrating on other activities.

Implementing laws against driving while talking on a cell phone may not be the answer, but if cell phones or other factors contribute to distracted driving that results in an accident, the penalty should reflect this.

We have laws to deal with people who choose to have a cocktail or two before driving, and like drinking and driving, cell phones and some other distractions are voluntary activities.

If people choose to do things behind the wheel that limit their ability to drive safely, and if that choice results in an accident, the responsible driver should be penalized accordingly.

Laws cannot change people’s thinking, and more laws telling us how to live are not the answer.

It could be argued that a casual attitude toward the safety of other people is at the root of many of the problems on the road, and laws can’t fix that.

The bottom line is that there are times when doing one thing well makes more sense than doing multiple things not-so-well, and time spent behind the wheel falls into that category, no matter what your age.

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