Distracted driving a matter of life and death

By Union Democrat staff March 11, 2011 05:22 am
    Cell phones have become such an integral part of our culture that we react without thinking.
 The phone rings and, even though you’re going 50 mph on a curvy, back road, you begin searching for the phone. You rifle through the cluttered console or reach into your jeans pocket while negotiating a left-hand curve, somehow convinced there is some urgency to the incoming call.
    Two things usually happen: You answer the bleating cell phone without incident, and the call is not at all urgent. In fact, it is never urgent enough that the 30 seconds it might take to pull off the road and return the call legally makes the difference between life and death.
       But staying on the road can be a deadly decision. Far too often a fatal or serious injury crash results when drivers take their eyes off the road to answer the phone or, worse, read or send a text message. 
    This was brought suddenly and tragically home last week, when a 22-year-old Sonora woman drifted across the double-yellow line on Highway 49 north of San Andreas while texting, slammed into an oncoming pickup truck and lost her life.
    Was that text worth the chance she took and that tens of thousands more drivers take daily when their attention turns from road to phone? Of course not.
    Still, California’s cell phone and texting laws may be the most frequently flouted statutes in the Vehicle Code. And younger drivers, many who have been packing cell phones since they were in grade school, are likely the most frequent violators.
    They are the target of California Teen Safe Driving Week, a campaign to reduce distracted driving.
    On Monday and Tuesday, the California Highway Patrol’s Sonora office issued five texting and cell phone tickets, many of them near area high schools. They are moving violations, and carry fines of more than $100 when court costs are added.
    “But it’s not about the money,” said Officer Mike Remmel of the Sonora CHP office.”It’s about stopping an epidemic that’s killing our kids.”
    Between 2005 and 2008, California drivers between 15 and 19 were involved in more than 20,000 crashes caused by distraction. Nearly half of those resulted in injury or death, said the CHP.
    Teens, statistics show, are already four times more likely to die in a crash than an adult. Add a cell phone, and the odds grow far worse. In fact, a Virginia Tech study found that texting increases the risk of a crash 23-fold.
    The study adds that a 55 mph texting driver can easily cover the length of a football field without once looking at the road. From an officer’s standpoint, said Remmel, “drivers who are texting or talking on a cell phone look like a DUI. They weave, speed up, slow down.”
    So will the Sonora woman’s death in Calaveras County help drive home those dangers?
    “I wish,” said Officer Rebecca Myers of the San Andreas CHP command,”but lot of kids will probably still think it could never happen to them,”
    Myers said officers regularly appear before high-school classes to drive home the point and continue to stop drivers (39 tickets and 46 warnings issued in Calaveras last year) for phoning and texting. Statewide, more than 135,000 such citations were issued.
    In 2008, the last year complete stats are available, 13 traffic deaths and 680 injuries were blamed on calling or texting and Myers believes the toll has only worsened since.
    The answer?  
    Continue to crack down. When it comes to texting or calling, the CHP should make everyday a zero-tolerance.
    As a parent, get involved. Don’t use your own cell phone while driving. And if you catch your kid doing it, take away the phone — or the car.
    Keep in mind that the crackdown on phoning and texting is in its infancy. Successful campaigns for seat belts and against drunk driving also began slowly.
    But the cell phone effort, too, will gain traction — as soon as drivers realize what our CHP officers already know:
    It is a matter of life and death.