2010-07-08 / This Week's Attitude

Motorists Must Not Drive Themselves To Distraction

This Week's Attitude
By Neil S. Friedman

Despite higher gas prices, more Americans took to the road over the four-day July Fourth weekend than a year ago. While cruisin’ the highways, drivers and passengers clearly observed other vehicles traveling in excess of posted speed limits.

I recently drove over 450 mostly highway miles to and from Baltimore and Philadelphia to visit friends and it was easy to spot a surprising number of unsafe — some bordering on reckless — drivers on our nation’s roads.

One thing plain as the nose on your face when you’re moving at the 65-miles-per-hour limit along the New Jersey Turnpike is that most drivers dangerously exceed that speed. I include myself in that category, but rarely go more than 10 miles over the limit. When I see the odometer inching towards 80, I slow down to what seems like a snail’s pace 70 as cars, trucks and buses zoom past at unsafe rates. That sort of driving becomes riskier when some zig and zag in and out of lanes to overtake moderate traffic moving at a steady clip.

I may not be the world’s safest driver — depending on how one quantifies that term — but when I get behind the wheel I often think of something my father drummed into my head while teaching me to drive over 40 years ago: watch out for the other guy.

His reasoning was sound. “You know what you’re doing,” he’d say, “but never presume to know what the other guy (or gal) is doing.” (He didn’t single out women; it’s just politically correct these days.)

That shrewd advice was absolutely right. Being attentive to the other guy on local streets or highways has almost certainly saved me from an accident or two.

Here are a few things that annoy me most about other drivers:

•those who fail to signal before making a turn, which is actually a fineable offense that’s never — or rarely — enforced.

•aggressive drivers and road hogs.

•flagrant defiance of basic traffic laws — including police vehicles sans lights or sirens that go through Stop signs or red lights when they aren’t rushing to a crime scene.

•double parking, which impedes the flow of traffic on busy thoroughfares, especially traffic agents issuing summonses.

•failure to yield at four-way Stop signs. This problem seemed to diminish for in the months after 9/11 when everyone seemed more courteous, but it gradually returned. FYI-the first driver to reach the intersection has the right of way.

•people, particularly women, who put on make up, or groom themselves. And, yes, I’ve seen guys combing their hair, too.

•drivers who honk the instant a light changes from red to green.

One specifically irksome matter is getting more interest. There’s a campaign stirring nationwide, including both houses of Congress, to ban driver cell phone use — regardless of whether or not it’s hands free. After all, when drivers are absorbed in an intense conversation, they’re probably not paying adequate attention to the traffic near them, which makes them as dangerous as a drunk driver. The National Highway and Safety Transportation Administration estimates that talking on a cell phone makes a drive four times more likely to be in an accident.

Most Americans likely did not get into the seat belt habit until 1984. However, it took several years before the law was rigorously enforced. It is estimated the rule has saved tens of thousands of lives. (I got a ticket for not wearing one a few years ago and I’ll never make that oversight again.) There are 48 states — except Maine and New Hampshire — in which it is illegal for a driver or front-seat passenger to travel without a seat belt. In New York and nine other states, police can stop and ticket a motorist simply for not wearing a seat belt.

Law enforcement officers have a responsibility to enforce hands-free cell phones, as strict as they do seat belt violations, not to boost ticket quotas, but to save lives.

Sending or receiving text messages is a whole ‘nother matter and should be banned as soon as possible. It’s bad enough when pedestrians stroll along, diligently texting and not paying attention as they nearly bump into passersby, but when a driver’s punching in letters and symbols, it can be a very serious problem as they swerve or drift into adjacent lanes.

While the MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) campaign has helped reduce the number of DUI crashes over the years, some activists should start an offshoot aimed at multitasking drivers. After all, when someone’s behind the wheel of a vehicle that weighs well over a ton and they’re preoccupied — cell phoning, texting, grooming or eating — it not only endangers their own lives, but also jeopardizes drivers of vehicles in the vicinity.

We Americans love our cars and the freedom of the open road, but some motorists need to curb their distractions if they hope to safely remain in the driver’s seat.


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