Driving Drunk with Both Hands on the Wheel

I wonder what the woman was thinking as she sat on her motorcycle at a stoplight in suburban Chicago a few weekends ago. She might have been thinking of her kids, where she was headed or maybe nothing at all. No one knows but I bet it wasn’t about the car coming up behind her, at speed, as it plowed in and took her life.

The woman who hit her was putting nail polish on.

The forty six passengers who were hurt on Boston’s green line when the trolleys they were riding in collided weren’t expecting to have to be attended to by medical personnel. They were just riding the trolley home on the evening commute. They were thinking, for the most part, what they think about every day on that ride.

The twenty-four year old driver of the trolley that caused the accident was texting.

I saw an accident a few weeks back. It was one of those strange ones. Traffic was typical of rush hour but otherwise it was a bright, normally dry Colorado morning. Yet, there they were, a pickup truck and a very expensive BMW pulled on to the left side of the northbound lanes of I-25 and it appeared the BMW had tried to eat the back bumper of the pickup. Expensive car, expensive bodywork. The truck was pretty much fine.

Was the driver of the BMW on an important conference call paying only partial attention to driving? When I see a $90,000 automobile, I can’t help but ponder the cliché (unfairly, probably) that the owner spends too much time at work. That kind of money had to come from somewhere. Was spending too much time thinking or doing work the case this time? Was he working while driving (or was it driving while working)?

Driving, by its very nature is a participation activity. It seems to me that if someone is driving a car and doing anything else, they might as well be driving drunk. Some informal studies (we’re talking Mythbusters informal) have shown a significant decrease in driving skill when talking on the phone. It seems to me this is merely common sense. I don’t care how smart someone thinks they are or how good of a driver they think they are. Neither a big ego nor a a big brain will protect them if they fail to maintain proper control. It doesn’t matter what kind of job they have or how much money they make, either. Jobs and money don’t drive safely. People do.

I am constantly amazed that there is not more vehicular carnage on the roads with all the distractions that now exist. Vehicles these days have TVs, video game consoles in the back, MP3 player displays and GPSs all serving to distract the occupants including the driver. If you go to an auto show, you will likely see a whole lot more features that aim to get drivers’ attention. Lexus has ads on TV at the moment that tout the new XS, complete with color screen and console mounted trackball. It also has all kinds of “safety” features that are supposed to predict for the driver if danger is imminent. Does it protect a driver or make them more complacent; distancing them from something to which they may be better off being intimately connected? For whatever reason, the priorities of driving a car seem to be getting all changed around. I am pretty certain a driver’s attention is not something from which we want to get market share.

It seems often the case where the act of driving a car is an afterthought to all the other stuff we do or could be doing. I imagine some people hear about these accidents and read about the increasing numbers of proponents of cell phone bans while driving and still think, “oh well, that doesn’t apply to me. ” Don’t bet on it. The law of averages says differently.

We’re humans and our brains, as different as they seem can only process so much stimuli at a time. Driving a ton and a half of highly energized metal does require full time attention and it’s worrisome that, increasingly, some don’t think it does. Because everything may be fine now, but what about down the road when someone slams on their brakes, there’s a patch of ice, a bicyclist swerves to avoid a gap in the road or a young boy runs between cars into the street. Do you want to be the person who wasn’t paying attention and has to say that you didn’t even see him only to realize that, yes, you were searching your bag for your cellphone?

The commercials talk about traction control, headlights that adjust to illuminate the corner into which the car is headed, heads-up displays that show infrared images of a deer or other obstruction up ahead and automatic breaking if the car gets too close to the one in front. There’s even a commercial where time freezes on an imminent collision between a semi and an expensive sedan. Guardian engineers come and adjust the driver and move the semi so the accident that would have occurred never does when time starts again. Guardian engineers don’t exist, of course, and this commercial is just to get you to buy the car. But the message is clear. Buy our car and you’ll be safer, but it doesn’t matter if you buy that car or some other. In the end, the driver is ultimately responsible for the safety of themselves and anyone else with them. And by extension the other people in cars around them. If they are doing something else, safety is compromised. That compromises my safety and now “we” have a problem.

Watch sometime. Watch someone who seems to be deep in conversation when they are driving in front of you. You may notice that they are driving as if they were drunk. Slowing down for no reason or driving slower than the posted limit, weaving in the lane, weaving out of the lane, speeding, hard braking in traffic, even locking up the tires in a particularly close call because they didn’t realize the traffic up ahead was completely stopped. They were too busy figuring out where everyone was going to meet for lunch and listening to how to get there, working on a really big deal or troubleshooting a particularly nasty problem with the distribution center in St. Louis.

I once was on a call while driving back from a client’s in Golden. When I’d gotten to my destination, I reflected briefly on the drive and realized I couldn’t really remember it. It was a little freaky. I don’t “talk and drive” anymore. I’m on the wagon. The phone is just not that important. My thinking is any call I get can wait the 15 or 20 or 50 minutes it takes to get to my destination. If not, I’ll pull over and focus on that. Not both.

Recently, legislation has been making its way through the Colorado House of Representatives that would have required hands free devices while driving and using a cell phone. I’m thinking someone needs to create an even more stringent law that prohibits cell phone use while driving entirely. Just requiring hands free misses the point and is really just a waste of taxpayer’s money (unless it’s a stepping stone for more hard-nosed legislation.) Requiring hands-free devices for talking on a cell while driving is like requiring hands free stick shifts. It’s silly. The concern is not having both hands on the wheel. It’s paying attention and using your brain.

In aviation there are the concepts of situational awareness and cockpit management. Being “ahead of the airplane” at all times ensuring that if something comes up, you can anticipate what’s next and act accordingly. In motorcycle training courses they use SIPDE which stands for Scan, Identify, Predict, Decide and Execute. It’s not a huge leap to think that either of these can also apply to driving. If you can’t scan because you’re looking down at your muffin, or you can’t predict because you are engrossed in a call, suddenly, you’re behind the car and that’s a bad place to be. To be sure, there’s not that little matter of falling out of the sky and you have two additional wheels but drivers are still operating something in which there is a lot of energy. It’s moving at a relatively high speed most of the time and it is always a good idea to be mindful of that.

They say five links in a given chain of events can break before disaster is imminent. Life is a chain of events. If five things go wrong in close time proximity to each other, it might be a good idea to pay attention because chances are getting better that something unpleasant is about to happen. A person is talking on the cell phone and they’ve already used up one link. Balancing a sandwich on their thigh? A second link that could potentially break. Drinking a coffee or soda? Three. Reading a book? Four (yes, I have seen this.) They’ve got one more slot. Do they think they can control what uses that last one? Maybe, maybe not. They’ve had one hand on the wheel the whole time but they still only have half their brain in the car. That remaining “chance” could disappear fast.