Distracted driving a threat to the public good [Editorial]

Erected back when drunk driving was the primary cause of fatal traffic accidents, the death toll sign in front of the Bel Air Barrack of the Maryland State Police met its demise and there's talk of replacing it with something with something a bit more modern.

In its final months of existence, the old sign wasn't kept up to date with current numbers, but when it was last in regular use, the number of alcohol related highway fatalities was no longer as high a percentage of the total as it once was. Though drinking and driving remains a problem, and those who get behind the wheel after a little bit of overindulging are a menace to society, other problems have become similar threats to public safety.

Distracted driving, denoted on the list of factors contributing to accidents on police accident reports in Maryland as failure to give full time and attention to the road, has become a problem every bit as deadly as drinking and driving was at its worst.

Since the earliest days of motor vehicles, there have been plenty of distractions, but modern technology has compounded the problem. Cell phones that allow not only for conversations while behind the wheel, but also for checking email, sending text messages and even surfing the Internet are every bit as dangerous behind the wheel as a six pack of malt liquor.

Then there's the matter of aggressive driving: driving close to the vehicle in front of you, making quick lane changes, leaning on the horn and cutting it close when turning in front of oncoming traffic are all dangerous, and all commonly practiced. Roadways are crowded, many of us drive long distances to and from work and the temptation to shave a few seconds off the trip is strong.

There's also the disturbing reality that some police officers, the people responsible for helping make roadways safe, are rather cavalier about highway safety when they're driving their patrol cars. It only takes a few officers speeding, making unsafe U-turns or engaging in other unsafe driving habits to make it look to a lot of people like there's nothing wrong with such behavior.

Importantly, the Maryland General Assembly has given police officers reason to believe that they're above the law when it comes to highway safety. It may be illegal to use a computer while behind the wheel if you're a civilian, but if you're a law enforcement officer, it's all but required. The same goes for cell phone use. If that's OK, what's wrong with speeding?

The time has come for an overhaul of social attitudes about what it means to be a safe driver. It's fine that the state legislature has passed bans on texting and computer use while behind the wheel, but how seriously can such rules be taken when those enforcing them are exempt?

If a new sign ends up being erected outside the Bel Air Barrack, it should make special note not only of the drinking and driving fatalities, but also those associated with failing to give full time and attention to the road. That would be a small step in the right direction. Even though the number of fatalities on Harford roads is down the first four months of this year compared to the same period last year, that could change mighty easily. The problem needs to be taken a lot more seriously to keep that from happening.

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