Thursday, October 8, 2009

What Will it Take?

In recent months, as I’ve driven around Connecticut, I’ve become increasingly cautious about entering intersections, even when a green light signals to me that it should be safe and legal for me to proceed. The reason? Too often, one, two, or sometimes even three drivers will run the red light from the other side of the intersection. This is a particular risk at one major intersection near me, where cars and trucks frequently fly through the red lights at 50 mph or more. I’ve learned that “green” means “look, then proceed with caution!”

Lately, another factor has made even a quick grocery run more dangerous: distracted driving.

The other day, I was the first in a line of cars waiting at a red light to leave a supermarket parking lot in Unionville. The light turned green. Rather than hit the gas, I paused and looked both ways. (Immediately, of course, the person behind me tooted impatiently.)

But oh boy, was I glad that I had waited and looked.

A large blue pickup truck, bigger than my own large vehicle, barreled through the red light, traveling at least 40 mph in an area where most traffic was stopped or moving very slowly. As the vehicle passed by me, I could see into the open cab where the driver, both hands balanced on top of the steering wheel, was texting rapidly on her cell phone. It’s fortunate that there was a gap in traffic on the other side of the intersection, because she never even looked up. She finally took her eyes off her phone in time to start visibly, slam on the brakes, and avoid rear-ending the slowly-moving vehicle in front of her, but it was a close call.

If I had proceeded on the green light, I would have been struck directly, and my vehicle would probably have been pushed hard into the other cars in the intersection, injuring or perhaps killing other drivers and their passengers, and putting the pedestrians on the sidewalk at risk.

Was this distracted driver one of the teen texters we’ve been hearing so much about lately? No. It was a middle-aged woman, neatly dressed, focusing on her text message instead of on her driving task.

Perhaps the texting driver was trying to get in touch with one of her kids or her spouse, or letting a waiting friend know that she was running late to their board meeting.

But if I had proceeded legally into the intersection, I would have been severely injured, if not killed. I would not have been able to pick up my daughter from her friend’s house where she was waiting for me. I never would have made it home to cook dinner for my family, visit with my husband, read the books I had just borrowed from the library, answer the letter from my mother, and do the volunteer work for the nonprofit board on which I serve. My vehicle would have been destroyed, too, though that seems less important than the loss of my life or health, and the burden that would place on my family.

This frightening scenario is probably repeated countless times across Connecticut every day, and it's not just teens who are causing the problem. Take a look at the drivers around you; it's not surprising to see half of all drivers of all ages and descriptions using their phones for texting or talking. (Don’t even get me started on phone use by drivers of big rigs, tankers carrying hazardous materials, and buses!)

What will it take to reduce this risk? More accidents, deaths, broken families?

We don’t need more studies. Research from reputable institutions has shown clearly that distracted driving is as dangerous as drunk driving. The distraction – whether it is a phone conversation, texting, applying makeup, shaving, or reading – impairs concentration and decision-making in much the same way that drugs and alcohol do.

We impose very harsh penalties for drunk or impaired driving, up to and including loss of license. If distracted driving is just as dangerous, and just as preventable, then why not impose similar penalties?

Until we have strong laws to include distracted driving with other impaired-driving offenses, until we levy appropriate fines and punishments, until we provide enough police officers to enforce the laws, and until we charge them with getting impaired drivers off the road, we will continue to read about the horrific crashes, injuries, deaths, and shattered families caused by distracted driving.

Why can't we acknowledge what is happening and apply the logical solution? What will it take to wake us up?

I lived through that near-miss the other day, but only because I have learned to be afraid.

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