Hand-held cell phones: driving to distraction

The following people are just some of the reasons that safe driving advocates like State Senator Brian Joyce must be so frustrated. The owner of a blue Toyota, MA license 693HG8, on June 25 swinging onto Morrissey Bouldvard, swerving in front of us because talking on her cell phone  prevented her even being aware that she was cutting us off.

Or, the driver of a dark Audi, MA license 55X600, at 6 p.m. on June 29, totally ignoring a yield sign on I-95 so totally absorbed was he in his cell phone conversation.

Or, the owner of a silver car (sorry, I didn’t get the make) MA license 718W81 at exit 4 to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on July 2nd, slithering across three lanes, cutting in front of us, without a signal because, of course, he had one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding the cell phone to his ear. (Please be assured that I was not driving while making these observations and writing down license numbers.)

These folks obviously don’t know each other, but they certainly have a lot in common. They are representative of the driving danger that adult cell phone users present and who get off scot-free in the Safe Driving Law recently passed by the Massachusetts legislature, a watered down version of what Brian Joyce has been pushing for years.

Joyce, of course, has been particularly focused on elderly drivers and the desirability of having them tested routinely for competency. What emerged was a meek requirement that those 75 years or older have a vision test every five years and go the Registry to apply for their renewals. I’m not there in age (though every year I get closer), and it would also have been fine to set the age limit at 80, but frankly I’ve seen and read enough about crashes caused by older drivers to think some additional testing would be supportable. There’s broad support of limits on teenagers due to their inexperience. Our oldest drivers have plenty of experience, but it’s counter-intuitive to think that, as a group, we/they aren’t subject to a higher rate of physical and cognitive deficits.

Yes, it’s good that lawmakers banned texting while driving (a no-brainer) and cell phone use by teens. But lawmakers didn’t go far enough. Tom Vanderbilt, in his comprehensive book “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says about Us), notes that nearly 80 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of the near crashes involved drivers who were not paying attention to traffic for up to three seconds before the event. That’s why the legislature still needs to deal with hand-held cell phone use by adult drivers.

This map shows states that ban driving while using a hand-held cell phone. One can only hope that the next legislative session will produce a requirement that all drivers use a hands-free device.

Vanderbilt writes that “cell phones in cars have contributed to the seeming death of signaling for turns.” (See my third example.) He also points out that “keeping one’s eyes on the road is not necessarily the same thing as keeping one’s mind on the road.” Cell phones take up brain capacity to process other unexpected events, especially hazards coming from our sides, those in our peripheral vision.

Yes, simply talking is still a distraction, but so are putting on lipstick, quieting down the kids in the back seat, listening to talk radio, or eating a sandwich. However, it’s unrealistic to think of eliminating these. Add hand-held cell phone distraction to the mix, stir in a measure of travel frustration and inter-driver competition, and you have a potentially lethal brew. Hand-held cell phones are something that can be controlled, and, next session, that’s exactly what the legislature should do.

– Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below

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