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Let’s Make Driving Safety a Priority

by on 06/22/2014

By Joan and Gary Bloom

You know those beer-drinking helmets that allow hands-free drinking? Now that I know we can drink safely, that is, without taking our hands off the wheel, I think we can do away with DUI laws. No more reaching for the beer should make for safe driving. Of course, while driving, we’ll have to specifIcally prohibit reading the beer-can label. I am so glad I learned that hands-free drinking is just as safe as as hands-free cell phone use.

Sticklers will assert that it’s not hands-free drinking, itself, that’s dangerous (though still illegal), it’s intoxication, because intoxication leads to cognitive impairment — specifically, in situation recognition, and reaction time. Exactly. It turns out that many studies have found nearly identical cognitive impairment in being legally drunk behind the wheel, and talking on a cell phone behind the wheel — hands-on or hands-free. Let me repeat that for dramatic effect: many studies have found nearly identical cognitive impairment in being legally drunk behind the wheel, and talking on a cell phone behind the wheel — hands-on or hands-free.

It’s painful to read the posts to about the recent deaths of Lexie Hess and Ellie Bonano. We all wish there was something that could have been done to prevent those accidents. The writers urge drivers to slow down, pay attention, and urge pedestrians to not assume they’re safe when stepping into a crosswalk. They ask the police to crack down on speeders, to subpoena the driver’s cell phone records, for goodness sake — to do something. They ask their elected officials to make public safety a priority. Challenge accepted, here’s a start.

Years ago, before there were any laws about use of cell phones while driving, while about to stop for a red light, I received a call from a client’s physician. Given how difficult it is to connect with a busy physician, I answered the call. The first thing the doctor said was, “Are you driving?” I answered “Yes, but I’m at a stop light.” He said, “That doesn’t matter. It’s not safe to talk on the phone while driving. Call me back when you’re not.”

I took his message to heart and, from then on, have not answered my phone while driving. Though using cell phones with a hands-free device is legal, I have maintained this restriction.

Shortly thereafter, I made a commitment to do what the physician had done with me, refuse to talk to anyone who answers my call while driving. This has been difficult. I have sensed resentment from those who feel I’m trying to control their behavior. But, if they insist that I talk to them while they’re driving, are they not trying to control mine?

It takes only casual observation to witness carelessness of those driving while phoning (DWP). Once, while walking east on Main Street from the post office, I observed a woman on her cell phone ready to pull out from Washington Federal Bank. She had a young (sevenish) boy in the passenger seat. I had the right-of-way as a pedestrian, but I cautiously walked forward. The woman, chatting all the while, started to pull out directly in front of me. Her young passenger got her attention, by yelling and waving his arms, and she stopped short of pulling into my path. Thank you, young man, for paying attention.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was formed by a mother, following the death of her 13-year old daughter, at the hands of an intoxicated driver. The organization worked, successfully, to get law-makers to increase their recognition of the dangers of driving while cognitively impaired due to heightened alcohol blood-level. Since the formation of MADD, in 1980, the allowed alcohol blood-level while driving has been nearly halved.

At this time, there may not be four votes on the City Council to further restrict cell phone use beyond the (widely ignored) state law that prohibits hand-held use while driving. That’s the history of change — it takes place incrementally — as it has with public-smoking spaces, seat-belt requirements, lowered alcohol-level limits, and even the inadequate cell-phone restrictions.

As it happens, change in law follows change in culture. Over time, more people believed the Surgeon General’s warnings written on cigaret packs. More people quit smoking for their own health, and to set an example for their children. More people became unhappy with second-hand smoke — relating in some manner the old saying that “your freedom stops at the end of my nose.” Legal restrictions followed this change in attitude.

I trust it will be a matter of time before it becomes commonly accepted that driving while using a cell phone, hand-held or not, greatly increases the chances of an accident, of tragic injury or death. I expect that legal restrictions will follow this cultural change. In the meantime, we can take personal responsibility for increasing public safety by making these two commitments: don’t call when driving, and politely refuse to continue a call with someone who’s driving. As another old saying goes: “change begins at home.”

Links to research on cell-phone use while driving:

From → Edmonds

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