The issue of distracted driving has been given much publicity and at the same time, the police have made enforcement of it a priority. With so much attention being paid to it, the public may be tuning out the message, but the subject remains important. One reason we are placing so much emphasis on the problem of distracted driving is that the legal aspects of it are continually evolving such that the public may be unaware of the law changes.
To be clear, there are a number of driver behaviors that are common these days but do not comply with the California Vehicle Code and are subject to enforcement. The increased use of cell phones, smart phones and electronic equipment that now is common in newer vehicles all have added to the challenges of operating a vehicle in a safe manner. Years ago, most cars only had a radio and clock as the non-essential items in the cab. These days, newer cars have on-board computers, automated air conditioning and GPS devices, sophisticated sound systems, DVD/Blu-Ray players, rear view cameras, seat warmers/coolers, devices for keeping food warm and the list of options goes on. It is truly amazing how complex the motoring environment has become.
Statistics support the fact that more traffic collisions are occurring as a result of motorists' attention being diverted to non-critical activities while driving. Consider the fact that a vehicle traveling 70 mph is moving at approximately 102 feet per second. This means that just a momentary glance at a text or email or otherwise taking one's eyes off the road to use other electronic equipment can lead to instant disaster. In just three seconds, at 70 mph, a vehicle travels the length of a football field, so imagine what happens when a motorist slams on the brakes to a complete stop just a few car-lengths ahead!
Distractions to driving can take many forms. These may include such activities as grooming, having a dog on your lap or otherwise in the motor vehicle operator's space, horseplay taking place with passengers, acts of intimacy while driving, eating, reading, using a computer, brushing one's teeth, shaving, and virtually any other activity that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that inadequate attention is being paid to the primary duty of safely operating the vehicle.
The burden to prove that distracted driving was taking place lies with the police. Eating, for example, is not outright prohibited. Eating a candy bar while driving probably would not lead to a citation, but eating foods that require two hands or the kinds that are large enough to obscure vision could be grounds for a citation. There are many variables when it comes to distracted driving so I cannot account for all of the possibilities in this column. Whether any one activity qualifies as a violation is dependent on a number of variables which create an unsafe driving situation. Indications of distracted driving (which may not be flagrant violations like speeding, running stop signs or red traffic lights) include driving too slow, weaving within the traffic lane, erratic movements like trying to stop at the last possible moment when traffic ahead has slowed or stopped, or not moving forward when a traffic light has changed to green. There are many possible distracted driving indicators, so to put it in the simplest of terms, the police are looking for any activity that indicates that a motorist may not be paying full attention to the requirements of safely operating the vehicle.
Until technology evolves to the point that "hands-free" electronic communications become truly effortless to use, the motoring public will continue to face challenges of safety and practicality with such activities as texting, using cell phones, and GPS devices. The other distracted driving activities, such eating and dogs in the lap is a problem of an entirely different nature. Regardless of the nature of what we all do while driving, it is clear that that our roadways are now less safe as result of distracted driving behaviors. We all have to ask ourselves if convenience, a text message, or a phone call is more important than the risk of injuring or killing ourselves, our passengers, or those we share the road with.