Commentary: Let’s make driving safety a priority

You know those beer-drinking helmets that allow hands-free drinking? Now that I know we can drink safely, that is, without taking our hands off the wheel, I think we can do away with DUI laws. No more reaching for the beer should make for safe driving. Of course, while driving, we’ll have to specifIcally prohibit *reading* the beer-can label. I am so glad I learned that hands-free drinking is just as safe as hands-free cell phone use.

Sticklers will assert that it’s not hands-free drinking, itself, that’s dangerous (though still illegal), it’s intoxication, because intoxication leads to cognitive impairment — specifically, in situation recognition, and reaction time. Exactly. It turns out that many studies have found nearly identical cognitive impairment in being legally drunk behind the wheel, and talking on a cell phone behind the wheel — hands-on or *hands-free.* Let me repeat that for dramatic effect: Many studies have found nearly identical cognitive impairment in being legally drunk behind the wheel, and talking on a cell phone behind the wheel — hands-on or *hands-free.*

It’s painful to read the posts to myedmondsnews.com about the recent deaths of Lexie Hess and Ellie Bonano. We all wish there was something that could have been done to prevent those accidents. The writers urge drivers to slow down, pay attention, and urge pedestrians to not assume they’re safe when stepping into a crosswalk. They ask the police to crack down on speeders, to subpoena the driver’s cell phone records, for goodness sake — to do something. They ask their elected officials to make public safety a priority. Challenge accepted, here’s a start.

Years ago, before there were any laws about use of cell phones while driving, while about to stop for a red light, I received a call from a client’s physician. Given how difficult it is to connect with a busy physician, I answered the call. The first thing the doctor said was, “Are you driving?” I answered “Yes, but I’m at a stop light.” He said, “That doesn’t matter. It’s not safe to talk on the phone while driving. Call me back when you’re not.”

I took his message to heart and, from then on, have not answered my phone while driving. Though using cell phones with a hands-free device is legal, I have maintained this restriction.

Shortly thereafter, I made a commitment to do what the physician had done with me, refuse to talk to anyone who answers my call while driving. This has been difficult. I have sensed resentment from those who feel I’m trying to control their behavior. But, if they insist that I talk to them while they’re driving, are they not trying to control mine?

It takes only casual observation to witness carelessness of those driving while phoning (DWP). Once, while walking east on Main Street from the post office, I observed a woman on her cell phone ready to pull out from Washington Federal Bank. She had a young (sevenish) boy in the passenger seat. I had the right-of-way as a pedestrian, but I cautiously walked forward. The woman, chatting all the while, started to pull out directly in front of me. Her young passenger got her attention, by yelling and waving his arms, and she stopped short of pulling into my path. Thank you, young man, for paying attention.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was formed by a mother, following the death of her 13-year old daughter, at the hands of an intoxicated driver. The organization worked, successfully, to get lawmakers to increase their recognition of the dangers of driving while cognitively impaired due to heightened alcohol blood-level. Since the formation of MADD, in 1980, the allowed alcohol blood-level while driving has been nearly halved.

At this time, there may not be four votes on the City Council to further restrict cell phone use beyond the (widely ignored) state law that prohibits hand-held use while driving. That’s the history of change — it takes place incrementally — as it has with public-smoking spaces, seat-belt requirements, lowered alcohol-level limits, and even the inadequate cell-phone restrictions.

As it happens, change in law follows change in culture. Over time, more people believed the Surgeon General’s warnings written on cigarette packs. More people quit smoking for their own health, and to set an example for their children. More people became unhappy with second-hand smoke — relating in some manner the old saying that “your freedom stops at the end of my nose.” Legal restrictions followed this change in attitude.

I trust it will be a matter of time before it becomes commonly accepted that driving while using a cell phone, hand-held or not, greatly increases the chances of an accident, of tragic injury or death. I expect that legal restrictions will follow this cultural change. In the meantime, we can take personal responsibility for increasing public safety by making these two commitments: don’t call when driving, and politely refuse to continue a call with someone who’s driving. As another old saying goes: “change begins at home.”

Links to research on cell-phone use while driving at edmondsforum.com. (Scroll to end of article.)

– Submitted by Gary and Joan Bloom

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17 Comments

  1. Great commentary regarding public safety and the responsibility we all have. Thank you

  2. Great commentary and excellent information. I believe many of us witness this behavior on a regular basis and it seems to be getting worse.

  3. What a very well written commentary! Thank you for articulating what many of us have tried to state in one fashion or another over the last few months.

  4. Our cell phone law is a bit strange. I think it reads that you can use the phone so long as you do not hold it up to your ear?? I have seen both drivers and walkers use the phone and not pay attention to what is going on. Maybe our police during the emphasis patrols could council folks about the inattention any phone usage caused for both drivers and walkers. Lets replace “can you hear me now” with “can you see me now”

  5. To get “zero tolerance” for hand-held / distracted driving, the fine should be $1,024 rather than $124. Add a zero to the fine to get to “zero tolerance”.

  6. That misses the point, handless is the law, but irrelevant to safety.

  7. Gary, if you are referring to my comments I am truly puzzled by your criticism. My first and second sentences refer to the law. It can be found here:

    http://apps.leg.wa.gov/RCW/default.aspx?cite=46.61.667

    Here is what the first few lines of the law actually say.

    RCW 46.61.667
    Using a wireless communications device or hand-held mobile telephone while driving.
    (1)(a) Except as provided in subsections (2)(a) and (3)(a) of this section, a person operating a moving motor vehicle while holding a wireless communications device to his or her ear is guilty of a traffic infraction.

    This supports what I said about the strange aspect of the law discussion holding the phone to ones ear.

    My third sentence supports you entire article about distractions. I cited personal observations supporting distractions. At least that is what I was trying to say with that statement. You make the remark that “handless is law”. I cannot find the word “handless” anywhere in the law???

    The law also goes on to describe exception including:
    (ii) Using a mobile telephone in hands-free mode.
    The definition of “hand-free mode” is defined in the law as:
    (4) For purposes of this section, “hands-free mode” means the use of a wireless communications device with a speaker phone, headset, or earpiece.

    So you can use a phone so long as you follow 4 above.

    My next point in sentence 4 was simply a suggestion tied to the upcoming emphasis patrols our police will be doing about the mix of cars and people and safety. My point was really taking all your research about cell phones distractions and suggesting the police go beyond the law and talk to folks about how cell phones distract even if on is following the law. I think that was your key point and I was trying to make an action item out of your good points.

    My last sentence was simply a play on words about a well-known cell phone ad and trying to take it one step further in suggest if people saw each other we would likely have fewer accidents whether the use of a cell phone was a contribution factor or not.

    So Gary, if you are referring to my remarks I simply do not understand your comment. Could you explain?

    • Darrol, I thought it obvious that I was responding to Ms. Koch, who referred to “handheld…”

  8. Was not obvious to me. Her point was to raise the fines. The law actually says “hand-held mobile telephone” There is no reference to the term handless in the law. Handless is not the law as I read it, What am I missing. She talks about the law, fines, and seems to support the notion of trying to find a way to move toward zero tolerance. What point did she miss? She was adding value to the discussion and I do not know why you would say se is missing the point. She has recommended an action to more the whole issue of distractions along. What is wrong with that?

  9. Darrol,

    The article is not about the current law not being adequately enforced. It is about the law being inadequate. It is precisely written to make the point that handheld vs handless is irrelevant.

  10. Gary I agree about the law but want people to understand what is the actually is. Do you have problem with people understanding the current “inadequate” law??

    Your “precisely written” article uses terms not in the law (handless) and suggest that handless is against the law. This is not a fact.

    I agree with the thrust of your article and just want to add to the understanding of anyone willing to read about it so they understand just how inadequate the law is. Is that OK?

    About council and 4 votes. You may have inside information but this is the council who go generate enough votes to protect us all from roaming cats so I think they could at least do something about cell phones. If they cannot vote for further restrictions then maybe they would vote for a resolution urging the police to “educate” the public about the dangers of using cell phones even if it is not the law when they do their emphasis patrol. Maybe we could print up some cards listing your references and ask the police to hand them out. A council resolution to that effect would be helpful and I would really like to see who would vote for and against that resolution.

    Your comments about culture, time, and future laws is pretty true. Some of us would like to change the time frame and help move the culture at least in Edmonds along a little faster than it will take if nothing is done. Do you have any ideas that can help move the cultural change along so we do not have to wait?

    Gary I agree with your article but just want to move things along.

  11. Perhaps HAVING this discussion of Public Safety in this small town will get things rolling. I don’t care what the laws says or doesn’t say, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to KNOW that if you take your attention off of what is right in front of your vehicle while driving, whether texting, attention on a phone conversation that has NOTHING to do with the road in front of your 5,000 lbs of steel, talking to a passengers, looking for something in your purse, even for 3 or 4 seconds, something very easily could go terribly wrong in a flash. THAT is how people have a good chance of ending up dead on our streets if they are walking around town.

    It also helps obviously for LE to ticket speeders, our town to have better signage and more signage, better marked crosswalks and I believe more crosswalks. One has to walk a long way at many areas before coming to a crosswalk. 196th a good example. Between Puget Drive/Olympic View Drive (by the light at the Deli, Portofinos, etc.) all the way east on the road for almost a MILE to 80th Avenue West, there is NO crosswalk. This is a street with many, many cars, and not being able to cross at a crosswalk for almost a mile, sets one up to cross wherever. All the way down Dayton Street from 5th, most white lines for marked crossing are almost all worn off, particularily at 3rd and Dayton. There are many areas that need to addressed sooner, rather than later. Hopefully, someone at Public Works is reading this. It’s a no brainer and so simple to fix.

  12. Darrol Haug: ‘Your “precisely written” article uses terms not in the law (handless) and suggest that handless is against the law. This is not a fact.’

    From the article: “Though using cell phones with a hands-free device is legal, I have maintained this restriction.”

    Since we agree on the major point, may we call a truce?

    There’s a reason why I’m attempting to fend off discussion about the current law. The chief strategy of political opposition is distraction from what’s important. Presenting an economic plan that creates an increased hardship on 95 percent of your voters? Focus on your opponent’s sex life. Your opponent wants to overhaul the educational system? But how does she feel about “open-carry” at Starbucks?

    Research supports that the current cell-phone use while driving laws are inadequate. But the current law does make a useful distraction from legislation that would provide enhanced safety for drivers and pedestrians. The current law gives legislators cover — they’re doing something about the problem. What the legislators don’t want to do is restrict their own convenience, or hack off voters. That’s why we don’t have a better law.

    I also believe we don’t have an adequate legislation because of ignorance of the research. As far as your suggestions, this article is intended to be an opening gambit to create awareness of the problem. I hope it doesn’t stop here.

  13. Gary I agree with many of your points. In the world of blogs the intent sometimes is to stimulate people to understand something or to create a call to action. I was only trying to add a bit more to the notion how stupid the law is and how little it does to reduce accidents. I was also trying to at least present a way our council could proceed to at least help our citizens understand how distractions can lead to accidents. Truce on the law details, I think we now both know what the law really says. But where to we go from here? If we just wait for culture to catch up with reality I will either be dead from a cell phone driver running over me, or dead from natural causes at a much older age. In ether case the law will not be changed in time for me to see it. Other then describing the issue do you have any ideas on at least ways we can be safer locally? Or do you have anything to say about my suggestions?

    At the local level, Edmonds, we have many issues that do not have adequate legislation because of ignorance of research. Too many to discuss here but stay tuned.

    Thanks for pointing out the supportive research that most intuitively know. It was a good article.

  14. This morning I was down town by the traffic circle around 10, and saw two ladies walking and talking on their cell phones while holding them to their ear and they walked right into traffic that was already in the road and the car was forced to stop before hitting them. I was at a point that I could see their eye and head movement and neither looked in any direction before stepping into oncoming traffic. I do not know who would have been at fault according to the law. Sad we cannot all pay more attention to the things around us.

    • Last week, my car overheated on the freeway. Riding to the mechanic in the front cab of the tow truck, I had a long conversation with the AAA guy about what he sees in terms of distracted driving. Surprisingly, he said in terms of collisions caused by distractions, what he mostly hears about is people who eat while driving. He also mentioned seeing drivers doing crossword puzzles and painting their toenails…but being distracted by eating is the consistent one.

  15. What to do? E-mail your City Council Members, and ask them to support legislation that restricts *any* cell phone use while driving. It has to start somewhere. In the words of the great philosopher, QB Russell Wilson: “Why not us?”

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