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Carl Wernicke: That Call Can Wait

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   Apparently every community in America takes pride in having the worst drivers, and certainly Northwest Florida can make its case.  But the advent of the cell phone is taking things to a new and scary level.

   Leaving the University of West Florida recently, I was at the light at Nine Mile Road and University Parkway. Now, we’re all used to aggressive drivers who cheat the light and push through the intersection after it turns red. They do this trusting that the drivers on the other side will take a moment after the light turns green to hit the accelerator. 

   But this is not, in fact, a safe assumption, as evidenced by the number of wrecks in intersections. These wrecks were the impetus behind the growing use of cameras to catch violators. Having watched the audaciousness of drivers trying to save three minutes by putting all our lives in danger, I support use of these cameras. I know that many people hate them.

   Anyway, back to the intersection at Nine Mile. I waited patiently as the stream of cars from the turn lane abused the red light. I finally started moving and blasted the last car in the long line with my horn. What I saw next remains fixed in my mind’s eye.

   The woman driving that last car looked up in horror, eyes wide as dinner plates. What I also saw was that she had one hand on the wheel, and one hand up to her ear, holding her cell phone. I realized that she had no idea what color the light was, but immersed in her phone she had simply followed the car ahead of her. So she was oblivious to the red light and was hurtling through a busy intersection with her mind somewhere else. Discovering a car coming at her was a complete surprise.

   What was scariest about this scenario is how common it is. I’m surely exaggerating, but I’m now willing to believe there are more drivers using their phones in their cars than not. For sometime now while stopped at intersections, or waiting to cross on foot, I have made a point of counting the drivers talking or texting, and the percentage has become frighteningly high. 

      After hearing my story recently, a friend told me about watching a young man weave from one shoulder to the other on an interstate access ramp as he drove with one hand and texted with the other. Despite nearly clipping the railing, he never put the phone down.

   Research by the Federal Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that texting while driving is significantly more dangerous than driving drunk; the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis concluded that texting causes 3,000 highway deaths a year, and now kills more teenage drivers than alcohol.

   Meanwhile, politicians run from this issue; they know that serious regulation is unpopular because so many people are guilty. In Florida, it remains a secondary offense with a moderate fine.

   No, more laws won’t stop it; people still drive while intoxicated. But I think the data clearly indicates the need to make the penalties for causing a wreck, and especially for killing or injuring someone, just as stiff for texting as for being intoxicated.

   Today, when I get a text while driving, I let it sit until I am parked somewhere. I let calls go to voicemail. I suppose if someday I get a text telling me there’s a bomb in the trunk and I should jump, I will regret that. So far, none of my in-car texts have carried that weight.