I drive 18 miles of interstate each weekday before sunrise. Ahead of me, lines of fast-moving tail lights stretch into the dark toward the horizon, toward my destination, like glowing breadcrumbs aligned along a well-worn trail.
As I draw near to a set of those tail lights, I glimpse something else: the soft white glow from phone screens as people text or read while they drive. I see even more of them after dusk on the commute home, because traffic is heavier and slower at that time.
The least distracted among these drivers announce their divided attention by veering into other lanes and almost into other cars, or they drive 10-15 mph below the limit amid high-speed traffic with two wheels in another lane the whole time. Those drivers who fail to correct often wind up in a wreck surrounded by emergency vehicles on the roadside.
I see an average of one wreck per day along my short stretch of Interstate 64 in eastern Missouri. Usually, more than one vehicle is involved.
According to the National Safety Council, more than one-quarter of all car crashes result from smartphone use. But that percentage represents confirmed numbers. By my count, 60 percent to 70 percent of the people I can see in the other cars along my 36-mile round-trip commute have their faces angled down at their phones instead of up at the road, so I believe the NSC’s estimate is soft.
What happens when drivers stop looking at the road, even for what they think is only a moment? A study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that sending or receiving a text requires an average of 5 seconds – the time it takes to drive the length of a football field at 55 mph.
The overall distance is longer when you consider that few of us on the interstates keep the speedometer at 55.
I admit to being one of those distracted drivers until a few years ago when, along the same stretch of I-64 on a cloudless day, an SUV bounced off the concrete divider and careered across all four lanes into my driver’s side door, totaling my car. (My phone was in my pocket at the time.)
Neither I nor the other driver were hurt, but he resisted giving me his name, address, driver license number, or insurance information for my own insurance records, saying the crash was not his fault. This sounded odd considering the road was dry, the weather was perfect, and witnesses at the scene said nobody was near his vehicle when he lost control.
So, I said, “Fine.” Then I turned to the police officer who was interviewing us for the accident report and said, “Either you obtain his cell phone records for your investigation, or I’ll find an attorney who will.”
The driver’s insurance company cut a check for all damages within 72 hours.
Few things in life are certain except these: death, taxes, and the risk associated with distracted driving. Dozens of studies going back more than a decade confirm this danger, underline it, and yet so many drivers still ignore it. This is why I drive Interstate 64 with a grip on my steering wheel that could strangle a garden hose, and I watch not just the other cars but other drivers as well.
I know, the pressure to look at our phones while driving is great. Driving is monotonous, boring, so we use smartphones as a cure. On top of that, each of us perceives ourselves to be superhuman in some way – like thinking we handle driving distractions better than everyone else.
But nine people die every day in the United States from distracted driving, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the chief cause is smartphone use. Resolve to not inflate that statistic in 2016, and repeat that resolution – and stick to it – every New Year’s thereafter.