Stop first, then talk

HOW DID WE EVER live without cell phones? The government first authorized them 30 years ago, so a significant portion of the population quite literally can’t imagine cell-less existence (unless you live in parts of Ancram and other service-deficient communities). But now it turns out we have a problem living with them.

Last week we reported on local two accidents where authorities say the use of mobile devices by drivers contributed to one death and several injuries. In the first case, a 44-year-old Greene County woman seen talking on her cell phone lost control of her car, which left the road–Route 9 in Greenport–and flipped over. She died of her injuries. It happened in the middle of the afternoon.

A few days later a 25-year-old man rammed his minivan the rear of a Taconic Hill school bus on Route 23 near Craryville. It happened at 7:20 in the morning on a clear day. The bus was stopped with its red lights flashing. The minivan driver, who sustained serious injuries, reportedly told responders that he didn’t see the bus because he was sending a text message on his phone. Seventeen students and a driver were on the bus. By good fortune, their injuries were minor.

The thought of what could have happened to those kids and the near-daily experience of clueless people yakking on a phone or texting while drifting toward the oncoming traffic possibly makes you wonder whether some evolutionary force is at work weeding out the weak-brained humanoids who didn’t read the memo that says when you talk and drive, it’s like driving drunk. The frightening thing is how many innocent people these knuckle-draggers take with them.

The obvious solution is to call for more enforcement of the state’s laws against driving while texting or driving while using your hands to operate a mobile device. But the most recent research suggests that states like New York, which have such laws, haven’t seen any reduction in accidents related to phone use. Sorry to say, you can’t effectively outlaw stupidity or selfishness.

This isn’t just a problem of teenagers who think they’re immune to death and mutilation behind the wheel. Mature adults should know not to mix driving with phone conversations or texting, but they don’t. Look at all the middle-aged people who jabber on the phone while chauffeuring their kids.

Hello! Driver-talkers. The National Safety Council estimates there are at least 2,600 fatalities a year caused by drivers distracted by their cell phones. Do you really dislike your children that much?

Folks who drive a lot for work will tell you they must use their cell phones on the road for business reasons. Really? So exactly why is your job more important than my life? And who gave you the right to choose? If you really need to travel and talk, take public transportation.

Lawmakers have taken the wrong approach in their attempts to curb dangerous behavior behind the wheel (police say drivers do lots of kooky things: read, shave, apply make-up, etc.; but cell abuse is everywhere). So maybe insurance companies should no longer offer coverage for anything but basic life support to civilians injured while driving and using a phone. (Police and first responders get a pass.) No help with special medical care, no compensation for lost wages. If you talk and drive, you risk losing everything you’ve got.

That type disincentive usually ends up hurting others who had no part in the driver’s bad behavior. But economic sanctions, including higher insurance rates for people guilty of talking and driving might help discourage this antisocial behavior. So might technology. Imagine if the car’s computer could communicate with the phone circuitry to prevent calls by the driver when the vehicle is moving. Ah, but this would just spawn new unintended consequences, like a market for devices that disable systems that prevent drivers from talking and texting.

In the end, only a change in attitude will prevent the carnage, unless we conclude as a society that the convenience of having cell phones at all times outweighs the safety of kids on school buses. But if we do, we’ve lost a lot more than the thousands of lives thoughtless, cell-addicted drivers snuff out each year. Societies that don’t protect their children don’t survive. So for no better reason than preserving the species, please tell people who talk and text while driving: Don’t do it. The call can wait. This isn’t about you.

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