Drivers brush, floss, read--and become menaces

December 02, 1992|By Mike Cassidy | Mike Cassidy,Knight-Ridder News Service

If you are reading this in your car, put it down now.

What are you, nuts? Don't you know how many accidents are caused by people who don't pay attention to the road?

We're not talking about daydreaming here. Drivers who daydream, or pray, or sing songs are minor leaguers compared to the serious menaces on the road. The California Office of Traffic Safety knows this to be a fact. The people there keep notes.

"One woman actually confessed to changing her nylons," said Betsy Tucker, who was hired in part to publicize the safety office's informal survey of things people do when they drive. "I don't know how in the world she did that."

Very carefully.

But think about it. Driving and changing nylons. It's hard to believe. But believe it. It's on the list.

"When I saw somebody flossing for the first time, I was dumbfounded," said Peter O'Rourke, the safety office's director, who has compiled a list of drivers' behavior reported on radio call-in shows and in letters to his office.

"I've seen it a couple of times since."

So, flossing -- two-handed flossing, mind you -- is somewhat common. Unlike, say, guitar playing.

"I was coming home one Sunday and there was a guy coming along, playing his guitar," Mr. O'Rourke said. "He had the breech hanging out the window and he was moving along at 55 mph."

Mr. O'Rourke, who has nothing against music or clean teeth, says such behavior is downright irresponsible, but surprisingly common.

People think of driving as automatic, he says. Who needs to think about it? As commutes grow longer and traffic grows worse, it becomes more tempting to make good use of that time on the freeway. So, people balance their checkbooks on the way to work.

"That's clearly what she was doing," Mr. O'Rourke said of a motorist he passed recently. "She had a calculator as well."

Never mind that for many, balancing a checkbook is tough enough without also having to make a tricky merge where the road narrows.

Statistics concerning accidents caused by people flossing, playing the guitar or balancing their checkbooks are scarce. For one thing, experts say, those involved in accidents don't always tell the truth.

"People aren't really willing to tell you, 'Yeah, I crashed my car because I was putting on my eyeliner,'" Ms. Tucker explained.

But, Mr. O'Rourke said, more than 90 percent of all crashes are caused by drivers' mistakes -- mistakes that would be less likely if drivers paid more attention to driving and less attention to other pursuits.

Pursuits like reading maps, talking into tape recorders and talking on the phone. Or like the others on Mr. O'Rourke's list, a list that is too weird to have been made up:

* A woman was seen taking off her bra at 70 mph.

* A woman was seen brushing her teeth and rinsing in a cup of water.

* Eating a baked potato at 55 mph. (At least he wasn't speeding).

* A man was shaving with a cordless razor at 55 mph.

* A woman was trying to change her baby's diaper. (The child hasn't gone near a safety pin since.)

* Eating a bowl of chili with both hands. (Have you ever tried eating a bowl of chili with one hand?)

Don't laugh. You never know when you're going to run into one of these people -- or more likely, when one of them is going to run into you.

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