OPED: It’s not ‘distracted driving,’ it’s selfish driving

Fred G. Medinger
The Baltimore Sun
A man looks at his phone while driving down Woodall Rodgers Freeway on July 16, 2015 in Dallas, Texas. (Rose Baca/Dallas Morning News/TNS)

You are on your way to work and waiting at a red light behind two other cars at an intersection. The light turns green, but the car at the front of the line just sits there, not moving. After 8 to 10 seconds, those behind the first car begin blowing their horns. Only then does the first car move. Meanwhile four other cars that have pulled up behind you can’t reach the intersection before the light turns red again.

Shortly afterward you get on an interstate that leads into the city and your place of employment. Traffic is heavy but moving along at the speed limit of 55 MPH. Then you come upon a car in the left lane that is going at least 20 MPH under the speed limit. It crawls along even though it is at least 15 empty car lengths behind the next car in that lane. Other cars coming up to this car in the fast lane try to move over to the right lane to get by it. Meanwhile the driver in this car is looking down at his lap much of the time, glancing up at the windshield every five seconds or so to check on the car in front of him.

These are but two examples of what has been labeled “distracted driving.” However, the expression “distracted driving” is only a euphemism for “selfish driving.” In each case the driver’s attention is not pulled away by something outside his immediate control, such as a sudden flash of lightning, an ambulance siren, an accident sitting on the left shoulder or a toddler crying in the back seat. No, in each case the driver deliberately chooses to look down and focus on his device, where he is texting and checking e-mails, even though doing this obstructs other drivers and increases the risk of an accident.

So-called “distracted driving” is just one example of a pervasive problem on our roads today, namely disregard for the rights of others, including their safety. This disregard manifests itself in road rage incidents, tailgating, drivers who abruptly cut in front of cars in the next lane with little space between the two, and drivers who purchase loud turbo mufflers that purposely disturb the peace with ear-splitting howling that assaults the personal space of anyone within two to three blocks of the car (e.g. pedestrians, shoppers), including residents of homes near that street or highway.

Studies conducted by the National Safety Council and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration since 2010 have shown that those who text while driving are at between 8 and 23 times greater risk of having an accident. This is not surprising. It takes an average of five seconds to read or send a text while driving, and at 55 MPH a car travels 100 yards in five seconds, the entire length of a football field. As a result, in 2015, nearly 400,000 people nationwide were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver, and nearly 3,500 of them were killed.

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Nonetheless, even with frequent messages in the media on the dangers of “distracted driving,” laws prohibiting texting while driving are not taken seriously and are not strictly enforced. Indeed, the internet communication resources that are now standard equipment on the dashboard of many new cars in 2018 cater to a driver’s restless craving for an endless stream of digital stimuli throughout the day, even when behind the wheel. Safe, responsible driving is of secondary importance to the immediate gratification afforded by the on-board internet access portals in cars today.

The widespread indifference to this problem resembles perceptions of drunken driving 50 years ago. Driving while intoxicated did not carry the same legal risks as is the case today, risks such as the likely revocation of one’s license, stiff fines, even detention and incarceration. This was before the advent of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in 1980 and their successful national campaign to reform and strengthen drunk driving laws and their enforcement. A similar transformation is needed with respect to “distracted driving.” We are on a slippery slope. Unless we stop and reverse the trend toward increased digital addiction behind the wheel, I shudder to think what the new norm will be for driver behavior in five years.

— Fred G. Medinger is a psychotherapist in Bel Air, Md. He writes this in a personal capacity.