He can do that -- and drive! Roads: With their hands off the wheel and their minds off the road, distracted drivers are putting themselves and other motorists at risk.

March 04, 1997|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

The 50-something woman in the beige Lincoln was weaving down Interstate 97, twice drifting onto the right shoulder. Drunk? No, just yakking on her cellular phone.

A Generation X-er carefully stroked mascara on her lashes while barreling down the Jones Falls Expressway. And a truck driver watched television on a portable set while traversing the Baltimore Beltway.

They are The Distracted, those bored and hurried drivers who apparently have mistaken their vehicles for homes and offices. Every day they try to negotiate the region's streets and %o interstate highways while fiddling with cellular phones, newspapers, hamburgers, electric razors or Maybelline mascara wands.

"There are some wingdings on the road," sighed Ken Frederick of Catonsville, who watched recently as a cell phone user cut too sharply in front of his car.

Distracted drivers are not just annoying. They can pose safety hazards, experts say. In a study published last month, Canadian scientists found that talking on a cellular phone while driving quadruples the risk of an accident. U.S. transportation officials are conducting similar research.

In 1995, inattentive drivers were involved in 3,323 fatal accidents in this country, nearly 6 percent of the total nationwide, according to federal statistics.

Generations of distractions

Distractions are nothing new. For generations, parents have scolded fighting children in the back seat, just as surely as

teen-age drivers have played with radio dials. But motorists have found more reasons to take their hands off the wheel and their minds off the road.

It's a sign of the times, said Dr. Kevin Ferentz, associate professor of family medicine at the University of Maryland's medical school. "We're trying to cram more and more things into less and less time," he said. "We don't realize that driving time is for driving and really shouldn't be for much else.

"Our cars used be havens for us, such as taking a leisurely Sunday drive with the family. But now your beeper goes off and your car fax machine spits something out. We're no longer isolated from the outside world in our cars."

"We're a very time-conscious society," said Stephanie Faul, spokeswoman for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a nonprofit research group funded by members of the American Automobile Association. "And as a result, you have people who are always feeling in a hurry."

Harried and bored by their workaday commutes, some folks try to do more than drive in their cars, she said. "The temptation to take chances is strong because it is boring to drive the same route every day."

Lulled by a sense of routine, distracted drivers may not even realize the risk they are taking by reading or dialing or eating. "Driving makes you feel invulnerable. You are in this wonderful metal cocoon that makes you feel powerful," Faul said.

'Lunatic woman'

But other drivers -- at least the ones paying attention to the road -- may feel insecure, uneasy or frightened when confronted with such inattentiveness.

Lauren Dale of Baltimore was headed to pick up her children at school last month when she spied a "lunatic woman" who was meticulously applying mascara while driving at a fast clip on the Jones Falls Expressway. "I kept waiting for my turnoff. I was thinking, 'I don't want to be near this woman when she crashes,' " Dale said.

Dale said she is so accustomed to another brand of distracted driver -- the phone user -- that she almost doesn't notice them. "That's so ordinary it almost isn't remarked on anymore," she said.

Some people will try to do almost anything in their cars. One middle-age man was spied putting drops in his eyes while hurtling down Interstate 95 south of Baltimore. He held a bottle of eye drops in one hand while he propped an eye open with the other. While performing this feat of hands-free, high-speed driving, he also had his head tilted back. "I didn't want to be anywhere around him," said witness Richard Teitel of Pikesville.

Michele Taltys, a facilities coordinator with a Baltimore company, said she saw a man brush his teeth one day and slurp down a bowl of cereal on another during her morning commute on Northern Parkway. "My first thought was, 'How can he do that and drive?' "

Some drivers say they are skillful enough to tolerate a distraction. Robin Miller, a limousine driver and self-described "cellular phone junkie," spends hours driving and chatting on the phone.

"There are people who drive well enough to drive while using a cell phone," said Miller, owner of Robin's Limousine near Baltimore-Washington International Airport, "but we are in a minority. We are less than 10 percent of the total. Most people really aren't very good drivers to begin with."

Federal officials want to know how calling affects driving. With the increase in cellular phone usage and "phone-related crashes," the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is studying the effect of phone use on driving behavior, performance and safety.

Car phones' plus side

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