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Distracted driving a growing menace

POSTED April 4, 2012 8:21 a.m.
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Recently, as I was driving on Highway 99 in the fast lane near Stockton, traffic suddenly slowed to about 45 mph (in a 65 mph zone). Motorists were rapidly switching from the fast lane to the other two lanes and in doing so; there were a number of near collisions. All three lanes of traffic were slowing down and it was clear that many motorists were angry and frustrated. I wondered if there was a collision ahead or some other road hazard, but I was unpleasantly surprised to see that the problem really was - a motorist, totally oblivious to their surroundings, happily talking away on a cell phone with animated hand gestures. Unfortunately, that scenario happens all too often. It causes collisions, road rage incidents, and such careless actions cause traffic congestion and slow-downs.

April has been deemed "Distracted Driving Awareness Month" by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. By all accounts, there are many motorists who need to eliminate the distractions that cause them to be a menace to everyone else sharing the roadway with them. The using cell phones and texting are the leading distractive behaviors while driving and in combination, the two account for approximately 28 percent of collisions nationwide.

There are many other things people do while driving that can sharply increase the odds of causing a collision. These include having a dog ride in the driver's lap, the application of makeup, shaving, grooming hair, applying fingernail polish, brushing teeth, reading, looking at things or people both inside and outside the vehicle, eating, smoking, drinking beverages, engaging in sexual activity, watching videos, setting GPS destinations, adjusting sound systems, writing notes, adjusting interior climate controls, swatting flies or other insects, and just about any other activity humans engage in. It is known that some motorists, long-haul truck drivers in particular, will occasionally engage in bathroom activities while driving in order to avoid stopping and to save time. Unruly kids can be a major source of distraction, arguing among passengers, and motorists who are angry, upset or depressed are also prone to a lack of focus and attention to the demands of operating a motor vehicle.

The case for a complete change in attitude towards things that cause distracted driving is strong, with close to 30,000 people dying in 2011 as a result. The police are becoming increasingly aware of the need to enforce traffic laws that apply to distracted driving. The California Highway Patrol, according has been issuing some 10,000 citations for this every month. Local police agencies are increasing their enforcement efforts as well. The first ticket for texting and driving, or using a cell phone without a hands-free device can lead to a $159 minimum fine. Subsequent citations will cost violating motorists $279.

Some people assert that enforcement for distracted driving is just another way for the government to generate revenue. In fact, the issuing agency receives little to nothing from the fines and penalties imposed. This kind of enforcement takes place solely for the purpose of making our streets safer.

What motorists need to do to increase driving safety is self-explanatory. The most important step is to become aware not only of the dangers associated of with distracted driving activities, but to become consciously aware of things that you have been regularly doing, habits, that have formed without ever giving them a second thought.

It is eminently obvious that distracted driving leads to collisions which, at minimum, causes property damage. At the other extreme, these collisions result in deaths, major injuries, and lifelong physical disabilities, in addition to lost productivity, increased insurance costs, and the list goes on.

We live in the age of multi-tasking. Our society seems to demand it, and technology seems to encourage it. But operating a motor vehicle requires many skills, and oftentimes, these skills require split-second physical reactions and decision-making. The next you get the urge to make a routine phone call or to reply to a text message while driving, please think twice about it, and decide whether the potentially deadly consequences of doing the distractive activity is really worth it.
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