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Editorial: Distracted driving is the new drunk driving

It wasn't that many years ago that the prospect of relatively few fatal accidents involving drugs or alcohol would have been presumed to coincide with relatively few fatal accidents altogether.

As it turns out, the number of deadly vehicle collisions in Harford County in 2012 where drug or alcohol use was believed by police to have been a factor was zero, yet depending on how you count, the number of people killed on roadways in the county in the recently passed year was 31, making it the most deadly year for highway fatalities in about two decades.

Starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, drinking and driving especially, but also drugged driving, for the first time in U.S. history started to be taken seriously. Prior to that, drunk driving was regarded almost as a legitimate excuse for causing a fatal accident. In those days in Harford County, where the population was a good deal smaller than it is today, annual death tolls in the high 20s and into the 30s were fairly typical, with a shockingly high number of those fatalities involving drinking and driving.

Thanks to the efforts of organizations like MADD and SADD — Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Students Against Destructive Decisions, respectively — the problem of drinking and driving began to be taken seriously.

Designated drivers, chemical free post prom parties and a drinking age raised from 18 in most states to 21 across the country were direct results of this focus on drunk driving. Drinking and driving traffic accidents had become a disturbingly substantial cause of death for young people, which gave rise to the increased drinking age, not to mention the MADD mothers whose children had been taken in crashes.

It would be a mistake to say drinking and driving is a thing of the past. Police continue to charge people with the crime fairly regularly. It would be fair, however, to say it isn't a problem of the epidemic proportion it once was.

Yet roadways in Harford County are as deadly as ever, possibly more so.

One of many reasons is a trend police first noticed in relatively small proportions when part of the driving population became enamored of a bit of new technology, the cell phone. As cell phones became indispensable accessories for many people, the problem grew. As phones added features ranging from music collections to electronic mail to cameras to texting, they became all the more irresistible as ways to pass the time while in traffic. Make a call on the way to work. Text a friend on the way home. Check e-mail at a traffic light. Oops, the light turned green. Better step on it.

There are other factors. Just as was the case when drinking and driving was the preeminent problem driving highway fatality numbers, speed is a problem, especially among young drivers. This might always be a problem. The temptation to see how fast a car can go is one that's hard for some people to resist. And speeding tickets aren't taken particularly seriously in many circles, regardless of how they affect insurance costs and, unfortunately, regardless of how many people die in crashes caused by excessive speed.

Strictly speaking, driving too fast for the circumstances is what's behind every accident involving the cell phone problem of distracted driving. Checking the phone or dialing a number while stopped at a red light isn't likely to result in a collision. Once in motion, however, the dynamic quickly shifts. While 60 mph is generally considered a bit on the slow side for interstate drivers, a vehicle going that speed covers 88 feet in a single second. That's nearly a third of a football field. If it takes a second to check e-mail, that's 88 feet of roadway that passes unseen. If a second turns into three or four, the numbers become ever more perilous.

This is a classic instance of a problem Walt Kelly's newspaper comic character Pogo pondered more than a generation ago: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Like drunk driving, distracted driving isn't so much one of those things bad folks do to the detriment of the law abiding masses. The masses of drivers who consider themselves law abiding are the folks putting us at risk, that is to say he is us.

The problem is just about everyone is guilty of some measure of traffic infraction on just about every trip out. Going 30 in a 25 zone hardly sounds criminal, but it is a violation. Same goes for no signal when making a turn or changing lanes. There are those who see no problem with texting while on the straight away on I-95 with the phone propped up on the steering wheel to make it easier to keep track of traffic.

The problem isn't necessarily the laws aren't in place. There is, however, a big problem with our collective view about the seriousness of violating simple traffic laws. It is a problem, by the way, that is compounded by exceptions in the law that allow police to use computers and other electronic equipment while they're driving. How can they be expected to take distracted driving issues seriously when they're all but encouraged to engage in distracted driving?

Like drunk driving, distracted driving is a problem that is the result of turning a social blind eye to the resulting carnage. As long as we fail to recognize ourselves as the problem every time we grant ourselves an innocent exception to the law, we're running the risk that 88 feet will pass unnoticed and in that 88 feet, someone's life can be affected in a terrible way.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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