See light: Keep eyes on road, not in ashtray

August 01, 2005|By KEVIN COWHERD

A WONDERFUL newspaper columnist, the late Lewis Grizzard, once wrote that he wasn't afraid of flying. It was crashing and burning he was afraid of.

That's sort of how I feel about driving.

As a general rule, I'm not afraid to get behind the wheel of a car. But crashing and burning, sure, you'd just as soon avoid that if you could.

I bring this up because our prolonged national debate about how to cut down on distracted drivers seems to be heating up again.

You've heard most of the solutions proposed, of course.

Some lawmakers want to make it illegal to drive and use a cell phone, even a hands-free one.

This is based on the theory that concentrating on a conversation takes your attention away from, say, that 18-wheeler you just cut off, the one hitting his air brakes and screeching to the shoulder.

Sure, there are some who say talking on a cell while driving is no more distracting than talking to the person in the seat next to you.

But I don't buy it. There's something about talking into the tinny, crackling void of Cell Space ("Am I losing you? Can you hear me now?") that requires the concentration of a chess master.

Other lawmakers want to prohibit drivers from eating or drinking when they're behind the wheel.

And if you've ever swerved across the highway while trying to open one of those tiny packets of ketchup for your burger and fries, you know how suicidal this can be, too.

Now there's even a bill in front of the New Jersey legislature that would make it illegal to drive and smoke.

The bill is considered a long shot to pass and some people think it's nuts, but not me.

Many years ago, I used to smoke in the car all the time.

And I can't tell you how many times this resulted in me taking my eyes off the road for a second or two, only to look up and find myself practically kissing the bumper of the car in front of me.

The actual puffing on a cigarette when you're driving -- no, that's not the problem.

It's all the other stuff, the little rituals leading up to the puffing, that turns it into High-Speed Roulette.

It's looking down at the dashboard to find the lighter. It's looking down to push in the lighter. It's looking down to see if the lighter's popped out.

Then it's trying to guide the lighter to your mouth without plowing into that school bus up ahead.

Then there's that nifty move where you throw your cigarette out the window when you're finished, only it blows back inside and starts scorching the back seat.

So now you're flying down the road at 65 mph, one hand on the wheel, while you furiously stab at the back seat with your other hand, trying to put out the fire.

Sure, that's safe driving.

Look, if you're going to be that reckless, you might as well juggle bowling balls while you drive, too.

True story: One time I was driving and lighting a cigarette when the lit cigarette fell out of my mouth and landed on the seat between my legs.

Then it somehow slid -- I'm trying to be delicate here -- farther, um, down.

Where it began burning my pants.

And the skin under the pants.

OK, now you have to picture what followed.

First, you have to picture me screaming and jumping out of the seat, which caused me to stomp inadvertently on the gas pedal, sending the car rocketing toward a dump truck stopped at the red light just ahead.

Sensing death, I hit the brakes. But in order to do that, I had to plop down in the seat again, which meant sitting on the lit cigarette one more time.

So now the whole thing was like something out of The Dukes of Hazzard with the car skidding to a stop at the light and the door flying open and me jumping out with my pants smoking.

Anyway, when I spoke on the phone to New Jersey Assemblyman John F. McKeon, the Democrat from Essex County who co-sponsored the no-smoking-while-driving bill, I briefly considered recounting this marvelous story of responsible behavior behind the wheel.

But it turned out he had his own mental images of smoking and driving to contend with.

"I can picture my dad dropping a cigarette on the leather seat," McKeon said, seeming to shiver audibly on the line. "There's no question that [smoking while driving] can be a distraction."

As many as a third of all traffic accidents are caused by distracted drivers. So McKeon has introduced a bill to help cut down on one specific type of distraction.

Oh, he's not renting a hall and chilling the champagne just yet. He knows the bill probably won't pass. Too many smokers in Jersey would go nuts. It would be hell for the cops to enforce.

But he thinks it could merge into some overall driver-distraction bill that could become law.

"It's really [about] making drivers mindful of the distraction," he said.

Yeah. I got the message 25 years ago.

And once you get it, it tends to stick.

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