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                                                                                   Distracted Driving

                                                                                  
By Warren Petkovsek

Please excuse me for a second while I drag out my soapbox. There. That’s better. On a recent RV trip when towing our 5th wheel trailer I was passed by a driver that was texting. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this. I find it not only unsafe, but highly disturbing that people can be that careless with their lives as well as the lives of others so I decided to just do a little informal survey. This trip was about 300 miles in length and the roads are mostly freeways and four lane highways. I drive at or below the speed limit when towing so there were quite a few vehicles that passed us on that trip. I checked out every driver that passed me and, while this surely doesn’t qualify as scientific research, the results were, nonetheless, disturbing. One out of every five drivers that passed us during that 300 mile trip that day was texting. TEXTING!!! I didn’t even attempt to count the drivers talking on cell phones. As you probably already figured out, I believe that using portable communication devices greatly detracts from a driver’s ability to maintain critical situational awareness thus increasing the odds of a potentially fatal accident. While I’m certainly not condoning driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, a drunk driver may be less dangerous than a distracted driver because he will usually concentrate on his driving and not draw attention to himself in order to avoid being caught by the police. Oh, I’ve mentioned this to a few folks and they got defensive with me saying things like their driving skills are good enough that they are able to multi-task safely or that talking on a cell phone is (in their opinion) no more distracting than listening to the radio. Well, obviously, I needed some more ammunition for my argument so I did some research on distracted driving in order to get some facts to prove my case. Here we go.

It is an undisputed fact that the number of accidents caused by distracted driving continues to increase making our public roadways more dangerous even for the most cautious among us. In fact, you can easily double or even triple your chances of being injured or killed by a distracted driver if you, yourself, are also driving distracted. One split second of inattentiveness is all it takes to become a statistic. How many times have we heard a news report stating that a vehicle “inexplicably crossed the center line (or median)” resulting in a fatal head-on collision? The Texas Department of Transportation estimates that in 2009 there were 3,307 accidents including 41 deaths that were attributed to drivers texting before the accident. GMAC Insurance conducted research that cited multi-tasking as the driving mistake that resulted in the most automobile accidents. Annually our nation sees an average of 1.3 million lives lost and 20 – 50 million injuries due to traffic accidents. The government reported that last year some 448,000 Americans were involved in accidents caused by distracted drivers and that 5,474 were killed. It has also been established that car crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans age 5 - 34. Additionally, it has been found that 1 in 5 American drivers couldn’t meet the requirements for obtaining a driver’s license if the test were given today. Why in the world would any sane driver want to lower their odds of remaining alive and healthy by driving distracted? Didn’t we already have enough accidents and fatalities before we had cell phones?

I suppose I should also mention that texting and talking on a cell phone aren’t the only forms of distracted driving. We’ve all seen people reading books and newspapers, applying make-up, programming a GPS and rummaging around through their glove box, overhead and console storage compartments, door pockets, purses and on or under their seats while driving. I knew someone who lost their teenage daughter in a head-on collision. The witness in the car traveling behind her told police that the girl was looking and reaching in the back seat like she was looking for something. She drifted to the shoulder of the road and even over the center line several times. Each time she would correct herself, but still continued poking around in the back seat until the crash occurred. Whatever she was looking for couldn’t have been as important as a human life and neither is your text or phone call!

There may be some hope for improvement due to possible life saving legislation. There is a bill sitting on Texas governor Rick Perry’s desk that would ban emailing, instant messaging and texting while driving. If caught the fine for distracted driving would be $200.00. I have three questions. Why is the fine only $200.00, why doesn’t it also include talking on a cell phone and why hasn’t this bill already become law? My guess is that career politicians do not want to alienate anyone and lose potential votes. There are laws prohibiting texting and talking on cell phones while driving in school zones so law makers acknowledge that this is a dangerous practice and they want to protect our children (and get more votes). Well guess what! If it’s dangerous in a school zone then simple fundamental logic dictates that it is also dangerous on all public roads and should be prohibited. In addition, cell phones should be checked by police after traffic accidents as part of a routine investigation in order to determine if the device was being used at the time of the accident.

I know that I have repeatedly used the term “accident”. Maybe I’m wrong to use this term. While a collision is surely unintentional, the act of texting and otherwise driving while distracted is a very deliberate act and yet people think that fatal crashes just can’t happen to them. That stuff is for other people. Folks should just notice all of the crosses on the side of the roads. Surely none of those poor people left home planning on dying on the road and certainly none of us that won’t engage in that careless, dangerous and selfish act deserve to become victims either. Please hang up or, better yet, turn off the phone, look out of the top half of the windshield, pay attention, drive “outside the car” and stay fully engaged in the task of maintaining situational awareness while safely operating your vehicle and not using your mental “auto-pilot”.

Thank you for your kind attention. I’m putting away my soap box now.

Warren Petkovsek has been an avid RVer for over several decades. He lives in Lumberton, Texas with his wife, Myra. A former teacher, band director and professional musician, Warren is now retired from the petrochemical industry. In addition to being a freelance writer he is also a school volunteer, a Texas State Park volunteer and has been a Boy Scout Leader for many years. Warren would be delighted to answer any RV related questions that you may have and would be happy to send you some or all of his other articles. He can be contacted at wpetko@sbcglobal.net .