By MEL RHODES
You’ve seen it. We’ve all seen it.
You’re driving down the street and you look over at the vehicle in the next lane and the driver is not driving – at least not attentively. The head is slumped downward and the eyes are riveted to something cradled in the hand: a handheld device – smartphone. Perhaps the thumbs are rapidly tapping out a text message on that smartphone.
In government or law enforcement parlance, this is called “distracted driving.”
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation website www.distraction.gov, anything causing a driver’s concentration to shift from the act of driving leads to distracted driving – using a cell or smartphone, grooming, reading, watching a video, etc.
“But because text messaging requires visual, manual and cognitive attention from the driver, it is by far the most alarming distraction,” the site reads.
According to former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, “Every single time you take your eyes off the road or talk on the phone while you’re driving – even for just a few seconds – you put yourself and others in danger.
Distracted driving is an epidemic on America’s roadways. You see it every day: Drivers swerving in their lanes, stopping at green lights, running red ones or narrowly missing a pedestrian because they have their eyes and minds on their phones instead of the road. Yet, people continue to assume that they can drive and text or talk at the same time. The results are preventable accidents. In 2011, 3,331 people were killed, and an estimated additional 387,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver.”
So why doesn’t the federal government just enact laws making texting behind the wheel illegal? Because passenger car or personal vehicle driving behavior falls under the jurisdiction of the various state governments.
While some states have banned the behavior, Texas has not, at least not across the board. The state has imposed the following restrictions:
• Drivers with learners permits are prohibited from using handheld cell phones in the first six months of driving.
• Drivers under the age of 18 are prohibited from using wireless communications devices.
• School bus operators are prohibited from using cell phones while driving, if children are present.
• In school crossing zones, all drivers are prohibited from using handheld devices.
As in other communities across the Lone Star State, local officials have discussed texting and driving, and watched to see what state government might do to address the problem.
“We’ve already prohibited it in the school zones, which mirrors the state’s direction,” said Mineral Wells Police Chief Dean Sullivan. “And in visiting with the city manager, we really thought the legislature was going to take it up this time.”
While acknowledging that texting behind the wheel is not safe driving behavior, he added that local texting-related accidents do not seem to be widespread.
“We haven’t seen that many documented incidents in our community where texting or use of a cell phone or other electronic device was a documented contributing factor; not to say it wasn’t, because it’s absolutely a distraction,” Sullivan said. “But with some of the tools that we have now [online accident reporting] we may be able to better track that and determine if indeed it is an issue here in our community.”
The chief said it is difficult to determine whether texting played a role in an accident.
“A lot of times you only discover it after the fact when there’s been a tragedy, like a fatality,” Sullivan said, “because then there’s a more extensive investigation. We pull the cell phone records and come to find out they were in the midst of typing and had an accident.”
Currently, officers at an accident scene generally have to take people at their word concerning texting while driving.
“It’s kind of on the honor system right now,” said Sullivan. “You ask people ‘were you on the cell phone? Were you texting?’ And they can say, ‘No,’ as easily as they can be honest, and say, ‘Yes.’”
Asked about next steps, Sullivan indicated some local action might be in the offing.
“Again, we thought that this legislative session might take some action, so we were being cautiously optimistic,” he said. “But it may be something we need to look at going forward. We want to use some of the enhancements to our records systems with the improvements that we’ve set in place, and be able to make an informed decision rather than just a reaction or a personal opinion. It appears to be a hazard; but if the data doesn’t show that, then are we enacting a law for personal preference or an actual ordinance that will benefit our community?”
Still, the chief was clear on his professional stance concerning the act of driving.
“When you’re behind the wheel, driving the car is your most important job – nothing else matters. Not texting, not distractions in the vehicle, not eating a hamburger. Driving is the most important thing and the only thing you should be focused on doing. A little common sense goes a long way.”
While it seems common sense would dictate that drivers avoid texting and driving, hand-held devices can exert a certain allure that often seems to cloud judgement. Connectivity is the thing in our high-tech, digital world. And perhaps there’s a little of that familiar subconscious, “Oh, it couldn’t happen to me” at play.
Again, according to www.distraction.gov, “Some people still don’t know how dangerous distracted driving is. Others know about the risks of texting and talking while driving, but still choose to do so anyway. They make the mistake of thinking the statistics don’t apply to them, that they can defy the odds. Still others simply lead busy, stressful lives and use cell phones and smartphones to stay connected with their families, friends and workplaces. They forget or choose not to shut these devices off when they get behind the wheel.”
One thing is certain: laws and attitudes on texting and driving, and cell phone use in general, are evolving. But for now, while it is not yet illegal in Texas, many officials and concerned citizens hope texters will recognize there’s nothing smart about using a smartphone while driving.