Kudos to Gov. Cuomo and the New York State Police!
Regular readers might be stunned to hear me begin this month with such an introduction, but I think the governor and the police are really on the money lately.
The reason is: I love traffic regulations. Really, I do. I’m not being sarcastic about this. When I was 10, I got hit head-on by a drunken driver, and thanks to my grandfather’s sharp reflexes, everyone survived.
So I have a strong distaste for idiots putting me or my loved ones at risk because they want to feel the roar of their engine as they speed on to their destination. As tragic as it is when anyone dies or is injured on the road, it’s even sadder when bad drivers take responsible drivers (or passengers) with them.
Sure, call me a square. But you would find yourself hard-pressed to disagree with any of the actual content in this column, or in Gov. Cuomo’s new crackdown on distracted driving. After all, who actually thinks the roads should be less safe? Who thinks drivers need more distractions? Not me, and not most of the country. The latest polling data on the issue, a CBS/New York Times poll from 2009, showed 97 percent of the country thought texting while driving should be illegal. Eighty percent thought talking on a cellphone should be too.
Then what’s the problem?
There’s a real disconnect between how we think other drivers should behave and how we actually behave on the road. In fact, go out for a trip of almost any length, and you’re nearly guaranteed to find another driver out there who irks you, irritates you, puts you in some kind of danger or at the very least makes you feel exasperated that it’s so easy to get a driver’s license in this country.
The twist? You (and I) are probably doing things that make other drivers feel the exact same way. They don’t do polling on this particular issue, but I can’t imagine anything less than 97 percent of the country believing we ought to have speed limits, traffic lights, stop signs, and other basic traffic regulations. Do 97 percent of people follow those rules? Absolutely not — the road makes us all terrible hypocrites.
I sometimes marvel that we, as human beings, are able to operate cars and trucks without even more trouble. We’re really not that biologically different from our cave people ancestors, both cognitively and emotionally speaking. There’s also something primal about the road, and aside from the occasional police car, driving is, for the most part, anarchy. Yet for the most part, it works.
But only for the most part. Since driving is such a huge part of everyone’s lives, we forget just how fragile we and our vehicles are — sometimes until it’s too late.
A different distraction
There have always been distractions for drivers like breakfast, coffee, makeup, or other passengers — I’ve even seen someone reading the newspaper while behind the wheel — but a cellphone is something entirely different. We can’t seem to figure out it’s a better idea to keep our eyes on the road than let ourselves get sucked into our smartphones — as if answering a text isn’t usually just a matter of satisfying our own base curiosity. (Disagree? Just kindly pull over.)
This is especially a problem with young people (my generation). A study done by Bridgestone Americas found that a third of drivers ages 15 to 21 admitted to reading texts while driving. A quarter didn’t even believe that talking on the cellphone while driving was dangerous. This should be something universally agreed upon. Still, most young drivers still thought they were good drivers — two-thirds describing themselves as “very safe”.
Sure, sure. The fact is, technology is causing more distraction than safety — auto engineering just hasn’t kept pace with the smartphone industry. All that’s necessary to take our eyes off the road is a little beep — a text message, an email, or a phone call. We think we can break our focus for just one second to attend to that notification. And most of the time, we can.
But then there are those times when that little beep is the harbinger of death. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, cellphones were a factor in about 13 percent of fatalities on the road in 2011 — which means thousands of completely unnecessary deaths. More worrisome, they also said texting while driving was up 50 percent since the previous year.
I want to shake my head and say “What is wrong with people?”
I realize it’s not everyone who does this, but it’s enough. And we all have to live (or die) with the consequences of senseless behavior — while the roads may essentially be anarchy, they’re still public.
Until Google finishes designing self-driving cars, we’re stuck with a tendency to do stupid things we know will kill us — and maybe others — with no cure but the long arm of the law. The police won’t change our foolish driving culture, or our human tendencies, but maybe they’ll help put us on the path toward making us reflexively feel how stupid it is to drive distracted.
Let’s hope we can wise up without too many more high-profile stories of people crashing into walls. The human condition loves negative reinforcement, but I don’t.
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.