My patience is wearing thin.
Almost every time I'm behind the wheel these days, it seems I'm trailing a vehicle that meanders side to side in the lane and accelerates then slows, accelerates then slows, accelerates then ...
As soon as I get a chance, I zoom past and sneak a peek at the offending driver. All too often my suspicions are confirmed: Cell phone in use. Driver distracted. Accident waiting to happen.
Recently, I was cruising about 60 mph in moderate, mid-day traffic on one of the capital's main thoroughfares, when I passed just such a vehicle. To my amazement, the driver's multitasking included holding a phone to her ear with one hand and stuffing a burger into her mouth with the other -- as she piloted a 4,000-pound lethal weapon.
Look, Ma -- no hands!
Don't misunderstand: I'm no lead-footed, Nascar wannabe. In fact, there's a reason my family calls me Grandpa -- and it has nothing to do with the fact I am. The truth is, I rarely drive as fast as they think I should.
This isn't about a need for speed or impatience. This is a public safety issue. And our legislative leaders mostly have refused to tackle it.
Earlier this year, lawmakers sought to ban texting-while-driving and require drivers talking on cell phones to use a hands-free device. Common sense, if you ask me. Liberty lost, screeched self-styled super-patriots.
The Legislature ended up banning cell phone use by teen-age drivers only -- better than nothing. But my recent unscientific survey -- consisting of glancing around intersections, when traffic is stopped, looking to see who's fiddling with a cell phone -- suggests the problem is just as pervasive with adult drivers.
So, we have legislation that is not only a classic double standard -- do as I say, but not as I do -- from the "adult" world, we are not tackling the fundamental issue.
A National Safety Council study released this year found that 28 percent of traffic accidents -- about 1.4 million -- occur when drivers are talking on their cell phones or sending text messages. Interestingly, only about 200,000 were blamed on text messaging -- the rest on voice conversations. Both, it seems, are serious distractions.
Rep. Danny Morgan, D-Prague, one of the principal authors of the bill that imposed the new driving restrictions in Oklahoma, said he decided to conduct an experiment one day. Headed home from the Capitol, he wrote a text message and sent it while driving in a rural area east of Oklahoma City.
"I realized I had driven about a mile with no recollection of where I'd just been," he said. "Pretty scary."
I've texted-while-driving more than a few times myself -- with similar results. I meandered, accelerated and decelerated enough that I quickly became aware of how annoying I must be to other drivers, not to mention a safety hazard. I now hate to even answer my phone while driving, though I can't help but check to see who's calling. And, yes, I still do answer the phone, on occasion, though texting mostly waits until I'm safely parked.
Morgan said he and Rep. Sue Tibbs, R-Tulsa, plan to revive the outright texting-while-driving ban in next year's legislative session. Earlier opposition from the cell phone industry is waning. And as more states adopt the ban -- up to about 20 now -- it's easier to persuade the knee-jerk, don't-tread-on-me crowd that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness won't be compromised if you can't text or drive.
I'm hardly unsympathetic to the issue of personal freedom. I wasn't a seat-belt wearer until -- as a resident of Austin -- the state of Texas forced me to become one. I also don't own a motorcycle, yet I can almost feel the wind whooshing through the hair on my helmet-less head.
The problem is, neither of those freedoms are enjoyed in a vacuum. If I'm in a terrible car crash, and my injuries are more severe because I refused to wear a seat belt, my medical bills contribute to higher premiums for other drivers. If I refuse to wear a helmet while riding on a motorcycle, who pays for my care if I'm in a gnarly accident and don't have health insurance -- or my care exceeds my policy's limits? In many cases, it's the taxpayers.
We don't let people drive drunk. We don't let them drive -- legally -- without motor vehicle insurance. And we constantly are reminded via public service ads that wearing a seat belt isn't optional -- Click it or ticket!
Despite the problem with so-called "intexticated" drivers, there is good news from Oklahoma's roadways: The number of traffic fatalities this year is down about 30 percent over the same period a year ago.
A troubling development is the increase in bicycle fatalities. Only 12 died in bicycle accidents between 2006-08. Last year alone there were 11 deaths and more than 300 accidents. This year, 11 bicyclists already have died on state roads.
Oklahoma City Sen. Andrew Rice, the state Senate's incoming Democratic leader, says he will push legislation in next year's session aimed at better protecting bicyclists. It will be modeled after Colorado's 2009 Bicycle Safety Act that includes what Rice describes as "commonsense" rules about passing and lane position for bicycles and motor vehicles on public roads.
I don't know how many of the bicycle fatalities were attributable to motor vehicle drivers distracted by their cell phones. But I do know that my cycling (including motorcycling) friends often recount horror stories of near-misses involving such distracted motorists.
It is worth noting that at least one technological advance may help reduce cell phones as a driving distraction. State Farm Insurance has released a widget for Android devices that allows cell users to write and preload custom messages that automatically respond to incoming texts while they're driving.
Maybe something along the lines of: Sorry I can't answer your text right now. I'm busy driving. I will respond as soon as I'm safely parked.
The fact is, it's just not safe to text while driving. And it's way past time for the Legislature to do something about it.
"Texting is the most dangerous thing you can do in a vehicle," Rep. Morgan said. "It's one thing to look down and change the radio station, it's another to read a message and try to respond."
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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