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Occasional ramblings by an anesthesiologist/mother (and sometimes her husband).

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Distracted Driving?

Reading this post over at Aaron Adams' webpage brought to mind a number of driving related issues that should be on everyone's mind, since everyone's safety is involved.

A few years ago, New York State instituted a ban on the use of cell phones while driving. The only exception was if you used a hands-free set. The day the ban was passed, I watched a televised debate between a representative on AAA and a New York State legislator. The legislator brought along a cellular phone, and attempted to demonstrate the distraction caused by using the device. Being a typical NYS legislator, he was completely incapable of comprehending basic logic, and therefore was oblivious to what the AAA representative was attempting to tell him.

The distraction of cellular phones is not caused by holding the unit. It is caused by having to divert your attention to conversing with someone else who is outside of your current situation. Your situational awareness is reduced. Conversing with someone in your vehicle means your attention is still contained entirely in your current location. Since holding the unit was not the distraction, every single study that had so far been conducted showed absolutely no difference between using a hands free unit or holding the phone.

This knowledge has been readily available for some time. No state or locality has, to my knowledge, instituted a general ban on the use of cell phones while driving. They all include exceptions for hands-free units. The obvious conclusion is that Cell phone driving bans are about public perception, not reality.

The greater danger comes in general from people who operate motor vehicles without the capacity to properly control them. It has long been established that operating a motor vehicle on a public road is not a right, but a privilege. This privilege is predicated upon the person's ability to safely operate the vehicle.

One of the most obvious detriments to one's ability to successfully operate a vehicle is alcohol. I know of no person who would defend a person for driving while drunk. The definition of 'drunk,' however is being constantly defined down.

Groups like MADD, ostensibly founded to combat drunk driving, have proven themselves to be nothing more than neo-prohibitionist groups. They constantly push to have the legal limit pushed downwards. They parade around people whose loved ones have been killed by people with BAC's of .08, expecting us to assume that the alcohol caused the fatal accident, though giving us no evidence of such. At the same time, I have yet to hear a single one of these groups complain about lax enforcement. All the attention is about grabbing people off the road. No attention is paid to what happens afterwards. People are often given nothing more than a legal slap on the wrist, and allowed to drive drunk again and again. People who have 2 beers after work risk being thrown in jail, while binge drinkers are sent out to kill again and again.

Next, we have the elephant in the room - elderly drivers. Modern medicine has allowed people to basically be middle aged at a time when a few centuries ago they would be dead. When you begin to reach a certain age, your strength, reflexes, and general mental faculties begin to deteriorate. There is simply no getting around this. You can't react as quickly as you used to.

Many elderly drivers compensate for this in a number of ways. Some refuse to drive on highways or at night. Many simply drive slower without noticing it. This is precisely the problem - not noticing. The amount of care you have to exercise while driving is proportional to your speed - the faster you go, the more attention you have to pay. The fastest person on the road has to take the most care. By driving below the speed limit, you are putting everyone else in the position of being the faster driver, but without informing them. I have always believed, therefore, that driving slow is actually more dangerous than driving fast. This is why laws require the use of flashers on slow moving vehicles.

Elderly drivers who don't notice this also often don't notice that they are weaving between lanes, straddling the line, or nearly ramming people. One of my particular pet peeves is vehicles parked in handicapped spots which straddle the lines, or are nearly orthogonal to the spot. If your handicap prevents you from being able to park your vehicle properly, then you are not in control and have no business driving. Period.

My right to swing my fist ends at your nose. One person's "right to mobility" ends when it endangers other people. Whether by distraction, chemicals, or age the problem is a general one - people who are not in control of their vehicles. The solution, I therefore submit, should be a general one.

If a person is found to be driving erratically due to not being in control of their vehicle, a mandatory suspension of the license and a testing of their driving abilities needs to be imposed. If a person drives on the suspended license - permanent revocation and jail time. If the person drives on the revoked license - life imprisonment.

Harsh, you say? The next time you drive to the grocery store, count the number of people you pass, whether in cars or walking. You'll probably pass a few hundered at least. Consider the fact that you are operating a vehicle which is capable of killing any one of them. If you are not in control of your vehicle, you have just committed that many counts of reckless endangerment and attempted manslaughter. In any other context, you would be lucky to not get the electric chair.

The problem with bans on specific items, like cell phones or a single beer, is that they miss the point. Some people can handle them, others can't. While we focus on the items, instead of the people, police end up being forced to look for cell phones instead of truly dangerous drivers. Police have better things to do then spend their time enforcing the latest nanny-state pet project of some moron in Albany while people who shouldn't be operating an electric can opener are driving a ton of steel at 12 mph in the wrong direction.

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