Wheel life

Editorial Notebook

April 29, 2006|By PETER JENSEN

Not so long ago, driving a car was mostly about driving and less about juggling. The only entertainment was the static-filled sound of AM radio. And appropriate decorum from the passengers was not so rare. Surely drivers faced potential diversions in this bygone era (yes, children did talk back, dogs barked, attention wandered). But compared to modern life, we were a nation of single-tasking primitives content to accomplish little else in the driver's seat than our physical transport.

Now look around. Today's commuter can be found chatting on a cell phone, eating breakfast, text messaging, shaving, reading the morning paper and scolding the occupants of the backseat, often all at the same time. The harried quality of 21st-century life doesn't just follow us into the car - it's reached its zenith there.

But the public is paying too high a price for such irresponsible behavior. Is there a commuter alive who hasn't witnessed an accident, or near-accident, caused by a driver plugged in but tuned out? How often the cell phone wreaks havoc is open to debate. Most statistics are gleaned from accident reports, and drivers aren't always truthful about their circumstance. "I was cut off by another car" is a well-worn cover story.

This week, safety experts at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute released a study that sheds new light on just how serious a problem driver inattention has become. They tracked the behavior of 100 drivers with video cameras and sensors for more than a year so they could observe exactly what happens in the moments prior to a crash. The result? Nearly 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involved some form of driver inattention.

That is stunning. As could be expected, the cell phone was the most common cause. Dialing one proved even more dangerous than talking. But there are other, less common distractions that were even more risky: Reaching for a moving object inside the car or looking for an object outside the vehicle (perhaps checking for an address or street sign) were far more likely to cause an accident than talking on a cell phone.

The yearlong study did not involve any fatal accidents, but that's probably because the sample was relatively small. In Maryland, driver inattention is cited as a contributing factor in an average of 45,690 crashes each year, including 26,309 involving injury. Only alcohol and drug impairment is more commonly recognized by police as a factor in Maryland crash fatalities than driver inattention, according to Maryland State Highway Administration statistics.

There have been efforts to crack down on distractions in recent years. New laws restrict cell phone use by teen drivers as well as the right to transport fellow teens (on the theory that peers pose a potential distraction, too). At least 14 states and the District of Columbia restrict cell phone use by drivers. Over the past decade, Maryland's SHA has invested in many miles of rumble strips (grooves cut into highway shoulders that cause a rumbling sound when driven over) to alert travelers to lane drift. But these efforts don't address the fundamental problem of distraction.

What is needed is a new sensibility, a call to drivers to keep focused on the road.

Last Monday, a 41-year-old Pikesville woman was driving her Honda Element on Old Court Road when the passenger-side wheels slipped off the side of the road and the car veered down a 3-foot embankment, striking a tree. In the backseat, her 9-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter were unhurt. She was pinned inside, her hip dislocated. Police didn't have to look too hard to find the cause: She'd been talking on her cell phone.

But she could have just as easily spent that fateful moment spilling coffee, reaching for fallen papers or applying lipstick. Driver education campaigns of the past have focused mostly on drunken driving and seatbelt use. Federal and local safety advocates need a new message to communicate to the public - an admonishment that the car is neither an office nor a home on wheels. Driving safely is multitasking enough.

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