Driving on Highway 101, I find myself stuck behind a very erratic driver.
The break lights are fluttering on and off, despite a very vacant freeway, as if the driver is tapping a foot to music. They swerve outside the yellow line and quickly jerk back to the middle, as if trying to avoid hitting an imaginary squirrel. They then proceed to ride the raised pavement markers, not seeming to mind the bumpy effect.
“This person is definitely under the influence,” I think to myself.
Cautiously, I change into the right lane and make a wide advance around them. Glancing over, I see that it isn’t alcohol that’s impairing their driving. Instead it’s the small, black device being held to their ear.
That’s right, a cell phone.
On July 1, 2008, California passed a law that prohibits all drivers from using a handheld wireless telephone while driving any motor vehicle. On January 1, 2009, the state passed a law which prohibits driving while text messaging on an electronic wireless communications device, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles’ Web site.
Despite these laws, it is apparent that there are still many people who choose to talk on their cell phones while driving.
“Instinctually, I don’t think they’ve (the laws) had any impact. We haven’t done any scientific studies yet, but I still see a lot of people driving while talking on their cell phones,” said Lt. Steve Tolley of the San Luis Obispo Police Department.
Instead of abiding by the laws, drivers are mastering the art of driving with one eye on the rearview mirror, scanning for an approaching cop, and dropping the phone into their laps when said cop is spotted.
This technique has made me believe, on many occasions, that I was driving behind a drunk driver, until I passed by to see a cell phone held to the driver’s ear.
Drunk driving and cell phone use, however, might have more similarities than I previously thought.
Consider the following study conducted by psychologists at the University of Utah, published in the June 29, 2006 issue of Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.
Subjects in the study drove a “virtual-reality” car four times: once with no distraction, once while talking on a hand-held cell phone, once while using a headset and once after consuming alcohol (enough to put drivers over the .08 percent limit).
To my surprise, the researchers found that when subjects talked on the phone (either holding it in their hands or using a headset), they showed the same signs of impaired driving (drifting, swerving, abrupt stops, inconsistent speed, etc.) as when they drove intoxicated.
What’s even more surprising is that not one person in the intoxicated group crashed their car. However, three subjects from cell phone groups rear-ended the virtual car in front of them.
Despite the results of the study, Tolley does not feel that driving while talking on a cell phone can be compared to drunk driving.
“It’s like apples and oranges to me. There are way more people injured from drunk driving,” Tolley said. “Anything that causes a driver to be distracted is dangerous. With cell phones it’s mostly speeding and running red lights, and stuff like that, which is very dangerous, but drunk driving is the worst thing you can do while operating a vehicle.”
Looking at the most recent statistics, drunk driving and cell phones both contribute greatly to the total U.S. death toll (37,261) from traffic accidents.
There were 11,773 total fatalities in drunk driving crashes in 2008, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Compare this to an estimated 2,600 deaths caused by distracted drivers on cell phones, according to the National Safety Council.
Even though drunk driving and driving while talking on a cell phone both contribute greatly to the overall death toll, driving while talking on a cell phone is not as severely punished. In California, a DUI can cost up to $1,500 and include a four-month to one-year suspension, for a first time offense, of one’s driver’s license.
The punishment for driving while talking or texting on a cell phone, however, is a mere $20 for a first offense. To some people, $20 is pocket change, and isn’t going to convince them to not talk on their cell phones while driving.
I feel there is a severe disconnect here. While many people might adhere to the new laws regarding cell phones, based on what I have seen on the roads, there are just as many, if not more, who disregard these laws.
Why don’t people take this more seriously? By talking on a cell phone, a person could potentially be endangering the lives of the people driving around them.
It’s not the fact that you are steering with one hand. It’s the fact that you are so deeply focused on your conversation that your driving suffers.
I urge you to think about this next time you choose to pick up your phone while driving: What is a human life worth in the face of personal convenience?