Saturday, April 5, 2014

Cautionary Pearl: Driving is dangerous enough without adding unnecessary distractions in the car.

Not long ago I saw a damaged SUV at the side of the road. I stopped to see if anyone needed assistance. A woman was standing outside the car, staring at the right front corner of the vehicle. The front wheel was nearly torn off, jammed beneath the suspension. She told me she wasn’t injured. I asked her what had happened. She said she spilled her coffee, swerved, and slammed into the curb. Then she looked at her vehicle again and said a word not normally heard in polite company.

That was an expensive cup of coffee. Now, odds are, this woman had driven with coffee cup in hand many times before without incident. But this accident shows how a small distraction can turn a routine local drive into an expensive nuisance—or even a catastrophe. Fifteen years ago, my closest friend suffered a disabling brain injury, thanks to a driver who, while talking on his cell phone, rear-ended him at high speed in stop-and-go freeway traffic. My friend had a very fine brain, but he will never work again and his quality of life is tremendously reduced. No cup of coffee, no phone call is important enough to justify inflicting this kind of harm on an innocent victim, or even yourself.

Fortunately, people are becoming more aware of the risks of driving while distracted. Like some other states, Oregon now has a law prohibiting drivers from using hand-held cell phones or texting. Nonetheless, I still see drivers talking on their cells almost daily. My wife and I have had numerous close calls while walking in parking lots because of drivers who seemed oblivious to pedestrians. Every single one of those drivers was talking on a cell phone. On a single day a few years ago, I watched two vehicles run red lights and a third barely screech to a halt in time. All three drivers were talking on cell phones. This is serious stuff.

I used to have a neighbor who routinely drove her minivan with a small dog sitting on her lap or wandering around on the front seat. Thinking of my poor friend with a brain injury, I spoke to her about the dangers of distracted driving. She assured me that the dog was not a problem. I’m not so sure. Recently I saw a car waiting at an intersection with a dog climbing all over the driver’s lap and sticking his head out the window. How can claws on your lap and a furry head partially blocking your view not be a distraction? I’m surprised that driver didn’t turn right into the guy talking on his cell phone who was coming the other direction.

Personally, I never talk on the phone when I’m driving. If you met my friend with the brain injury you wouldn’t either. I do recognize that there are times when phoning while driving can be useful or necessary, though. My guideline is that, if you’re driving under conditions where it is safe and appropriate to use cruise control, then it’s also relatively safe to talk on the phone. Otherwise, don’t dial and don’t answer the ring.

Being a distracted pedestrian is nearly as dangerous as being a distracted driver. I often see pedestrians walking right into a busy intersection at my local mall, often when they’re talking on the phone. Just yesterday I watched a young man step into a street without looking in either direction, eyes staring his palm and thumbs flashing over the keys on his phone. Couple that lack of attention with a driver on the phone and you have a recipe for disaster.

No driver expects to have a wreck; yet more than 17,000 automobile accidents take place every day in the United States. Don’t let one of them be your fault because of an preventable distraction.

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