EDITORIAL: Don’t touch that phone

NO JOKE. THIS GUY WAS CRUISING up Route 66 in Ghent last week on his beefy motorcycle. His left hand gripped the handlebar and in his right hand he held his phone up to his face. You could see he was concentrating on the phone; his chin was angled down and he wore a small helmet to protect his tiny brain.

He drove on without embedding his motorcycle or himself in a tree. Maybe he figured that’s his business, which it is, unless you count the costs associated with lifetime care for traumatic brain injury and ignore the possibility that his screen obsession is a menace to anyone unable to get out of his way.

There’s a difference between an occasional driving mistake and a habit that threatens others. But think about how many times these days you have to swerve to avoid oncoming cars drifting out of their lanes. When our phones beckon we can become dangerous without realizing it.

The consequences of driving while distracted can be as toxic as drunk driving. And while there are lots of activities that can distract us, our digital devices are among the worst. They make the youngest drivers the most vulnerable.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety recently studied in-vehicle video from 1,700 accidents involving teens and found that “distraction was a factor in nearly 6 out of 10 moderate-to-severe teen crashes.” The group says that’s “four times as many as official estimates based on police reports.”

Responding to numbers like that, Columbia County Clerk Holly Tanner and State Senator Kathy Marchione (R-43rd) sponsored a demonstration last week at the county Department of Motor Vehicles office in Hudson of a 3D Virtual Reality Simulator. The device is designed to allow drivers to experience the dangers of driving while texting. Spoiler alert: Ms. Tanner says no one is good enough at the mythical skill of multi-tasking to escape the Grim Reaper.

The simulator is a project of AT&T, a company that makes gazillions of dollars selling the public ever more phone and text messaging time. The company wasn’t trying to sell the county a 3D gadget. So what’s in it for AT&T?

Policy makers and the public have known for years that drivers are willing to risk injury, death and destruction to use their phones. That’s led this state and others to restrict drivers’ use of phones and to ban driver texting altogether. But laws haven’t worked, which suggests that the next regulatory steps may be more severe. More regulations could hurt business and companies don’t want to be known for putting customers at risk. So AT&T is making an effort to alert the public to the dangers. Skeptics might point out that if successful this could undermine corporate profits. But it’s a worthy endeavor if it can save a few lives.

Besides its 3D simulator AT&T also has a program called It Can Wait, which encourages people to pledge “to keep your eyes on the road, not your phone.” These efforts may seem small in comparison to the scope of the problem, but let’s give the company credit for doing something. And Ms. Tanner and Sen. Marchione did the right thing scheduling the simulator. If you missed it, there’s an app for your phone.

The digital services we crave–and insist on misusing–have created a public health crisis. So far the official response hasn’t matched the threat. Ms. Tanner says that last year her office issued 1,478 new driving permits. Most went to new drivers, who are most likely to be heavy users of digital devices. Those kids take a written state test that’s supposed to measure their basic understanding of the rules of the road. The test has questions about road rage, drinking and prescription drugs but nothing about texting or cell phone use.

The state has taken some steps to curb distractions, but lawmakers need to do more, and making sure all new drivers are aware of the dangers of distracted driving and that they must answer at least some questions about the topic as a condition of receiving their permit is the place to begin.
Maybe there will be a technical fix that will make this threat disappear. But don’t count on it.

Government and industry can do their part, but the biggest share of the responsibility lies with individual adults. We have to teach kids good driving habits by exercising restraint. We need to treat our devices as our tools not our masters. Their lives and ours depend on that.

Comments are closed.