You can have smart technology but still drive like a dummy

A few weeks ago I noticed one of those beautiful $20K motorcycles coasting down the street. Yes, with a rider on board, sort of. Let me explain. The bike was nearly impossible to miss—and hear: classic design, two-tone paint, plenty of chrome, and that unmistakable rumble. But it wasn’t any of those characteristics that held my attention; it was something completely unexpected and unrelated to the bike itself. With one hand on the left handgrip, the rider’s right hand was holding a smartphone and using his thumb to punch in numbers. I assume he was texting or using a GPS. You can’t easily talk on a cell phone with that kind of rumble. Granted, he was coasting down a hill and there wasn’t any oncoming traffic, but still, a motorcycle is best controlled with two hands on the bars. Besides, it’s only with two hands that a rider is able to manage the clutch, front brake, and throttle.

As a motorcycle rider myself, I wasn’t impressed. I have learned that if someone is behind the wheel of a car or is riding a motorcycle unsafely, they not only endanger themselves, they also endanger others on or near the road, be that another driver, motorcyclist, jogger, pedestrian, or cyclist.

Today, many states restrict the use of cellphones while operating a motor vehicle. In fact, some laws are so specific that they spell out the restrictions. For example, in some states cellphone use is banned while motor vehicle operators are traveling through school crossing zones. This and other laws are defined as “distracted driving laws.” Some states prohibit all drivers from using a handheld cell phone while driving. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking or texting. It’s a primary law and you can get pulled over for breaking it. Some states just ban novice drivers (that is, teenagers) from using a cell phone while driving. But really, anyone who drives distracted is a novice. An experienced driver should have learned that lesson long ago.

In case you’re interested in the distinction between primary and secondary laws when it comes to cell phones, a primary law means that an officer can ticket you for using a cell phone without any other traffic violation taking place; a secondary law means that an officer can issue you a ticket for using a cell phone only if you have been pulled over for another violation, such as speeding or coasting through a stop sign.

What are some of the results of using a cell phone while driving? If you consider this one fact, then it’s easy to see how quickly an accident can occur when you’re driving and texting: “Five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting. When traveling at 55 mph (88.5 kph), that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field [about 91.5 meters] blindfolded,” according to one source. And it’s not just texting, it’s other related behavior. For example, talking on a cell phone or even listening to one increases your risk of causing an accident. Even reaching for a cell phone is considered distracted driving and increases your risk of being in an accident. The National Safety Council estimates that each year 1.6 million crashes involve drivers who are using cell phones and texting. In other words, one in four accidents is the result of using a cell phone while driving.

And if you think using a hands-free device makes it all right, you would be mistaken. Using a headset or hands-free device does not result in fewer accidents. You’re still multitasking while driving. You’re still driving distracted.

You might be familiar with Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and very funny guy Dave Barry, who wrote a number of newspaper columns during his career about what he called “driving stupid,” wherein he highlighted some of the crazy things people do while driving. I still vividly remember something I witnessed not long after reading one of his columns. Call it “fact is stranger than fiction” or “I never would have thought of doing that.” A woman was flossing her teeth while doing her best to steer her vehicle by using a very small percentage of the sides of her hands against the wheel. I can barely floss my teeth standing in front of a mirror. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I don’t think I would have believed that a driver would endanger not only herself but also endanger those driving near her for the sole purpose of cleaning her teeth. (Hey, why not just gargle while you’re at it?) You’ve probably seen other more common distractions as well, such as drinking coffee or soda from small to very large containers; shaving (fortunately—if there is a fortunately in this situation—shaving with an electric shaver and not with shaving cream and a razor); applying mascara or lipstick; eating burgers, donuts or other fast foods; or letting Fido rest his paws on the wheel so that his owner can pretend that Fido is pretending that he can drive the car. The list is probably endless.

A tool is only as smart as its user. The car will move if someone starts it and steps on the accelerator. A cell phone will function if it’s in someone’s hands and fingers are pressing buttons. But sometimes a car or a smartphone isn’t in the hands of a smart person. The bottom line: when you’re driving a motorized vehicle, drive the vehicle and focus on what you’re doing and where you’re going. If you need to use your phone, be smart about it and pull off to the side of the road. Or better yet, wait until you arrive at your destination. Sure, there are always “emergencies” or excuses to justify driving distracted, but by doing so you risk creating another emergency. And there’s no excuse for that.