*While sitting at the light on a backed-up Los Angeles freeway exit ramp one morning, I noticed that one out of every three drivers getting onto the freeway on the other side of the divider—both private vehicles and professional cars and trucks with company names and logos on them–had their heads tilted into their laps, as if either texting, reading a text or dialing a phone number.
Some of them appeared able to do it with more finesse than others—their actions weren’t so obvious—but I’m sure most of them were doing what I thought they were doing. They were texting while driving.
This is what we do now. It’s not enough that for years we have been distracted by cell phone conversation. Today, behind the wheels of moving automobiles, using one or two hands, on smart phones we type out messages and conversations.
You can usually tell when someone is texting or dialing a number while driving. Their faces are usually aimed just below their steering wheel. They’re driving unusually slow. They weave. After the light has changed or traffic is moving, they’re still sitting there.
A lot of people do it. The United States Department of Transportation reports that cell phones are involved in 1.6 million auto crashes each year that cause a half million injuries and take 6,000 lives. Individuals who drive while sending or reading text messages are 23 percent more likely to be involved in a car crash than other drivers. A crash typically happens within an average of three seconds after a driver is distracted.
Despite those figures, people still text.
That this is illegal in many states is not a deterrent. Currently, the fines for being caught doing so—in California it’s between $20 and $50 dollars–are laughable (although in Alaska a maximum first time texting penalty can mean a $10,000 fine and one year in jail).
I’ve actually tried to guilt drivers into putting down their phones; damn near rear-ended the car in front of me trying to stare down a texter. I know—it’s not smart and it’s a form of harassment. They simply glance over at me and keep texting, anyway. The person who comes up with a way to stop drivers from texting is going to make a mint.
I’ve an idea: have city municipalities create divisions that track people texting in their cars. Kind of like parking ticket officers. They’d move among the public in unmarked cars of all makes and models, equipped with cameras that can shoot people in the act—or have technology aboard that can detect texting happening in a vehicle.
Using a car’s license number, they send the ticket in the mail. And that first fine is a doozy: $1,000. The second time you get caught, that fine is doubled, and on and on until you reach ten grand. Get caught after that, your car is impounded, your license is suspended for a year and you go to jail. Texting is dissuaded; cities make money.
A bit Big Brother-sounding, I know, but drastic times call for drastic measures. Texting while driving is like waving around a gun in public that discharges, injuring or killing someone every time. And it’s not just teens and young adults doing it. Texters come in all ages.
In deterring this epidemic, the first thing to understand is that texting and driving have nothing to do with one another. The drunk driver who gets behind the wheel—driving is not his problem; drinking is, and driving is not the only thing he can’t do effectively when under the influence.
Same with texting. Incessant texting reflects an addiction to it. Thus, those who text do so while driving because they text while doing everything: walking. Sitting at home. Over meals. In movie theaters. On the toilet. On PUBLIC toilets. They can’t walk without bumping into walls, doors and people, because they are so busy texting.
Those who choose texting as their preferred form of talk are often unskilled at verbal communication. They weren’t great at it before, so texting is their godsend. Driving is simply something else they can’t do because they are obsessed with typing out their thoughts.
If you find that you just HAVE to text, then face it: you’re addicted to your phone. Some folks’ addiction is more acute than others, but addiction is addiction.
And like any addiction, text addiction brings with it all sorts of “acting out.” There’s the sense of entitlement—“I just HAVE to text this”—that eats at the addicted texter while he or she is behind the wheel like an itch that must be scratched immediately, damn the laws and the risk. There’s a feeling of superiority: “I don’t have a problem texting behind the wheel, I can do it…I know HOW.”
And there’s the intoxicating high that comes with meeting the challenge of getting a complete text off…before the person at Starbucks asks for your order; before your lover returns to bed; before a light changes, before rush hour freeway traffic begins to flow again. Texters, by the way, LOVE traffic jams. More time to text.
If you’re doing any of this, you need to stop now. Because it’s only a matter of time before something bad happens. The statistics back me up.
Remember the good ol’ days, when technology- distraction in your car amounted to finding a good radio station or reloading the cassette or CD player? Now, people kill people while attempting to text “LOL” or “LMFAO.” It can wait, people.
Full disclosure: I’ve texted while driving. Well, I’ve tried. More than once. Simply couldn’t pull it off without the risk of wrecking. And though I do it hands free, I don’t HAVE to talk on the phone while I drive, either. To prove this to myself, I’ve left my phone in my pocket. Or I’ve put it in my trunk. The first time I did that, it gave me all the calm of transporting a dead body. Now I can do it often without freaking out.
Which is a good thing, because I’ve got enough problems without adding to them the title of text whore.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]