Adventures in Distracted Driving

Car_crash_1

Distracted drivers kill. Not just themselves, unfortunately, but innocent others: conscious drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians, passengers. In 2012, for example, 3,328 people were killed in distracted driving crashes.

So why, some of us wonder, are today’s cars designed to distract? Touch screens for multiple uses, gadgets for audible texting, voice-activated music or phone calls, GPS instructions that can be conflicted or confusing. Aids and upgrades? Or distractions?

Even with two hands on the wheel – tough, when you’re working with a touch screen – it is not possible to have any of the above in use without being distracted from the essential goal of driving: getting from Point A to Point B without endangering yourself or others. That goal once summed up the business of driving.

But cars and driving have changed in recent years. Cars are sold on the strength of how they make you feel – free, macho, superior. Driving, at least in the ads, is not a matter of getting from Point A to Point B, but “an experience.” An enhancement of self, time and energy.

My friend Mac spends a good bit of time and energy on the 1962 Volvo which is the family transportation, not always to the delight of his wife. But a functioning car is a functioning car. My own automotive experience has evolved from a 1977 Volvo stick shift to a 2000 S40, a rather spiffy little vehicle with sun roof and great radio sound – but no computer. It is increasingly difficult to find a car as uncomplicated as a 2000 Volvo S40.

Recently I was a passenger in a new car with one of the now-standard dashboard computer screens. Traveling 75 mph on a well-lit highway we were passing an accident of some sort and a police car with red and blue lights flashing when the computer screen blinked, a beep sounded and a friendly voice from somewhere said, “Hi, I just wanted to check with you about the wine.” Happily, the driver understood the blink, knew the voice, and had earlier set the interior phone to speaker since she wasn’t using ear plugs. She was immediately able to switch from the conversation we’d been having to a conversation about buying wine for the dinner party ahead that evening – while maintaining speed and staying in the same lane. The driver is also a highly skilled multi-tasker who hadn’t had any wine at all yet.

But after the phone conversation ended (and my heartbeat had gone back to normal) the driver told me she hadn’t noticed the police car.

Suppose the flashing police light had been a warning of hazard ahead? Suppose another driver on another, more troubling, phone call had done something unexpected in another lane? However skilled at both driving and multi-tasking, could my driver have had enough remaining undistracted resources to keep driving safely?

Given my choices, I would take sharing the road with Mac and his ’62 Volvo over all these roads filled with cars equipped with audible texting devices, voice-activated music systems and dashboard computer screens.

Unfortunately, we no longer have that choice.

 

 

Texting/phoning drivers meet ghostly end

Call it unfair if you want, but those of us wishing we could get texting/phoning drivers off the road are pulling for Car #1453.

POLICE car No. 1453 drifted along with the afternoon rush, unnoticed and unhurried. Even, perhaps, unfinished.

Car 1453 looks as if it rolled off the assembly line a few minutes too soon, before arriving at the machine that puts the siren on the roof and the colors on the door decals. But this look is the whole point of No. 1453, which is known throughout the Westchester County police department by its catchier nickname: the ghost car.

“Can you see it?” an officer joked, standing in front of the car in the department’s parking lot.

The police hope that the answer among drivers texting or chatting on cellphones, or speeding or driving drunk, is no.

The car, a 2009 Crown Victoria, joined the fleet two months ago. It is not an unmarked police car, but rather a barely visibly marked police car. It bears all the same decals as a regular police car, but they are white, colorless, like the car itself. The markings really are noticeable only upon close inspection — and hardly noticeable at all, the thinking goes, to a driver who is calling in his pizza order.

“You’re seeing more of what the common man sees,” Officer Brian Tierney, 32, said about the advantage the car bestows. “Everyone’s on their best behavior when the teacher’s in the room.”

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, six states plus the District of Columbia and Virgin Islands currently ban handheld cell phone use while driving, and 19 states plus D.C. and Guam ban texting while driving. Kansas and Alaska are among states currently considering a ban on one or the other. But catching violators, and proving the violation, is another matter.

“It’s really, really, really difficult to enforce that,” said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association. “You can’t have a law that the public doesn’t support.

“It’s a lot like drunk driving. Twenty years ago, it was hard to do anything about it because it was being done in such wide numbers.”

The goal of the ghost car is to make enforcement less difficult. The department did not want a fully unmarked car, because motorists can become spooked by what may seem to be a fake police officer pulling them over.

The idea came from Officer James O’Meara, 27, who holds a bachelor’s degree in graphic arts and computer design. “I heard about it,” Officer O’Meara said of the car’s white-on-white design, although he could not recall which department was involved. While “low profile” police cars — with no light rack on the roof — are widely used, it is unclear how common ghost cars are.

Uniformed officers drive Westchester’s ghost car, which, while intended to look like a taxi, down to its livery license plate, is clearly a police car when seen close up. “I thought you were a taxi” is commonly heard from drivers.

In case you think texting while driving is just fine, and you yourself are perfectly able to drive safely while doing so, you are invited to try the little game below:

Game: Gauging Your Distraction

This space welcomes your comments on how you did. I’m also open to hearing how you should be entitled to drive while texting or phoning or committing other ridiculous automotive crimes against civility. I’ll just continue to hope you’re not doing them in my ‘hood. We don’t have the ghost car, but maybe we can get one.

In Westchester County, a ‘Ghost’ Police Car Is on Patrol – NYTimes.com.