Tilting at Windmills (and texting)

On Tuesday, Maine officials, including the governor, rolled out a brand new initiative aimed at preventing drivers from texting on their phones while driving. Teaming up with three trucking firms, Maine is placing messages on 16 commercial vehicles traveling the state’s roadways, warning drivers of the dangers of texting while driving. They’ll be sporting messages like, “one text or call could wreck it all.”

Truck drivers in Maine are helping to spread the word that distracted driving can be deadly.

Truck drivers in Maine are helping to spread the word that distracted driving can be deadly.

I’ll give Mr. LePage the benefit of the doubt that this isn’t just a cheap election year gimmick that signifies very little. According to one of the reports I read, LePage, who hasn’t had to drive since being sworn in as Maine’s 74th governor in 2011, has been sitting back and observing all manner of behaviors among fellow Mainers while traveling up and down the state’s highways and byways.

“It’s amazing the things you see,” LePage said at a news conference outside the Department of Public Safety building on Commerce Drive. “We need to tell our drivers to be safer.”

Here’s the thing—that anti-texting message has been broadcast before, in a variety of different packages. Meanwhile, drivers continue to text and drive, especially younger drivers—they know the dangers, yet they still persist in rolling the dice, assuming that they can multitask without consequences.

Studies like this one conducted by researchers at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in 2013 support what Maine’s governor is highlighting—using a cell phone to text — that includes composing, sending, and reading a message or email and surfing the Web — while behind the wheel increases the risk that those drivers are twice as likely to crash, or almost crash, as those who are focused on the road. According to another study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March 2013, nearly one-third of American adults had e-mailed or texted on their phones while driving at least once during the previous month.

In light of these studies, we all know that we shouldn’t text and drive, and yet we do. That urge—to check our e-mail, glance at Facebook, or see who just texted us—can be as just as intense when we’re standing in line or at dinner with our families as it is when we’re driving a car. But it’s only in a car that resisting it becomes a matter of life and death. In order to fight the problem, we need to stop thinking we can simply tell people to stop—that overlooks how that urge works on us. Punishment won’t stop it, either.

Given that the same technological capacity that gave us smartphones that entice us and distract, could also employ the means to make using a phone in a car impossible, shifts the responsibility back to phone providers. I can hear people whining about the need to have a phone for safety purposes. Fine—create a “panic switch,” which all phones already have.

I’ve often thought that automakers and cell phone companies, along with service providers could partner and create phones that were limited within the confines of an automobile. In essence, the creation of text-free dead zones. If people can’t police themselves—which they can’t—then, take the temptation and capacity away from them while in an automobile.

Rolling billboards, punishment, and telling people that they shouldn’t text and drive will do nothing to curb usage, and accidents associated with distracted driving will continue to be the norm.

4 thoughts on “Tilting at Windmills (and texting)

  1. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but people on a phone in a car–talking or texting–is very uncommon in Europe. Like eating in a car, they just don’t do it. Even in a place like Naples, where there are literally no applicable driving laws in place, only the unwritten rules of the road, drivers leave their phones alone when they drive, even though they are otherwise as glued to their gadgets as we are. In England, it is common to find a driver parked at the side of the road taking a call. Everyone slows down and takes turns going around and no one complains. Everyone understands that safety is at stake, and no one is forcing the driver off the road (although there are horrific fines for being ticketed for yakking on the phone while driving), he’s doing it himself.

    Why are Americans somehow exempt from these acts of common sense, of common decency and respect for everyone else around them, that they won’t endanger other people’s lives and property just to share something entirely meaningless?

  2. LP,

    Your comment about the differences between Europeans and Americans and their behavior behind the wheel is interesting—even the eating vs. not eating in their cars—the drive-thru window phenomenon.

    I find it interesting with so much dysfunction on our roadways attributed to men in the past (like road rage), and testosterone, how woman (the “fairer sex”) have adopted these very same mores. Insurance.com conducted a survey and found women were more likely to flip off other drivers, tailgate, brake-check a car behind them, and in the other categories, were nearly neck-and-neck with their male counterparts.

  3. Well, there seems to be a sense of entitlement about driving in America–“I gotta right to drive, gotta right to speed, gotta right to have the biggest steel sled on the road, gotta right to ride your bumper”–that is absent in Europe. Americans have the most grossly exaggerated sense of entitlement on the planet, so that would be consistent.

    I can fairly say this: I have had Mercedes two feet off my bumper flashing high beams on Italian roads while I was passing a truck, but I never had anyone try to kill me on the road in Europe. There were reckless drivers, yes, but no one malicious. In America, drivers have tried to run me off the road several times. Deliberate, malicious attacks. Take that for what it’s worth.

    As for women in cars, all I can supply is anecdotal evidence. In England it is common for a road to narrow to one lane through a hedge, for example. Men gladly take turns, wave at each other, or back out of the lane to allow the other car to get through. Women, not so much. Since I’ve been back, I had one suicidally aggressive male driver pass me off the road to my right, only to slam on his brakes when the traffic right in front of me stopped at a light. But not too long ago, I had a woman run up on my bumper, flash headlights, roll back and then run up again. I was doing the speed limit. When she rode my bumper the second time I braked and she nearly swerved into a vacant cow pasture. Well, that really offended her, but having spent years in Naples with Mercedes parked off my bumper flashing high beams, she didn’t impress me. Fingers, high beams shining right in the eyes of oncoming traffic (me, I just turn my mirror away), and all so she could swing into the parking lot of a local strip mall a quarter mile up the road.

    In both cases, they were driving huge SUVs. Huge. I am sure they felt big and powerful and safe and immune up there while recklessly endangering other people all over the road.

  4. This is an interesting blog thread. I meant to comment earlier, got busy, and then was reminded of it when I saw one of those mobile billboards go by.

    I would not be in favor of the more Draconian approach, the “car kill switch.” You’ve written about our “hustling” culture so many times; it seems to me that this is just another symptom of this post-industrial disease. My approach is to spend less time on the road and then like Loosehead Prop, just p*ss everyone off with my slow driving.

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