I’d like you to try a little social experiment with me: Some time while you’re in Center City or another high-traffic commercial district, just take a moment to count the passing cars — in particular, how many drivers are on their cell phones.
Not just the Bluetooth-wearing, hands-free chatters, but the people who actually have the device held up to their ear, merrily chirping away as they weave in and out of traffic and dodge pedestrians.
I ask you to do this because I think you’ll be surprised by the numbers you come up with. I certainly was.
Everyone knows that the use of cell phones for talking and texting while driving are outlawed in most states to varying degrees — just like everyone knows that you’re required to wear a seat belt. But let’s face it, there are still plenty of drivers who refuse to wear them, actually preferring to simply ignore that annoying buzz from the seat belt alarm rather than buckle up.
It took many years, and millions of dollars poured into public service campaigns to get people to recognize the importance of seat belts. Remember “Buckle up for safety”? They drummed that one into our brains with endless television and radio commercials, not to mention the hideously gruesome accident photos they subjected us to in junior high health class.
Those images of bloody dismembered limbs and of people being pried out of the twisted wreckage with the Jaws of Life were burned into our brains forever, along with a simple message: If you don’t buckle up, this will happen to you.
I figure we’ll have to see a similar national campaign, and wait many more years, before people get the distracted driving message. They’re certainly not getting it now, despite the best efforts of state legislatures to make using a cell phone while driving an expensive proposition.
In Pennsylvania, texting while driving is a primary offense, meaning the cops don’t need another reason to stop you, like speeding or reckless driving, if they see your thumbs texting out a message while you’re behind the wheel. But honestly, how often are the police going to actually catch you at it? Not often enough to stop folks from doing it, obviously.
Across the river in New Jersey, they’ve gotten tough on distracted driving, and they’re getting tougher.
Just this week, our neighboring state adopted a law that classifies the illegal use of a hand-held cell phone as driving recklessly, one of the factors needed in finding a person guilty of vehicular homicide or assault by auto. Prosecutors argued successfully that was too difficult to hold drivers criminally responsible for injuring or killing someone while driving distracted, so now New Jersey puts cell phone users in the same category as drivers who’ve had too much to drink. A conviction for vehicular homicide can earn you five to ten years in prison and a fine up to $150,000. Assault by auto is punishable by six to 18 months in prison and a fine up to $10,000.
Do not think for one minute this law will not be strictly enforced. With state budgets as tight as they are, and money hard to come by, state troopers will be responsible for raking in millions of dollars from folks who just can’t put the phone down.
That’s not altogether a bad thing, because the numbers are grim. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2010, 3,092 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver, and an additional 416,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver.
Also interesting is the NHTSA’s assertion that distraction from cell phone use while driving has the same effect on a driver’s reaction time as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent.
Maybe distracted driving doesn’t seem like such a big deal, what with the economy in the tank, schools on the verge of closing down and people being shot to death in broad daylight on our streets. With all our other problems, driving while talking or texting is way down on the list of things to worry about.
We’re wrong about that. It is a big deal.
Just ask the families of those 3,092 dead people.
Daryl Gale is the Philadelphia Tribune's city editor.