Dangers of distracted driving
NATALIA WALLACE, a senior at Marin Catholic High School, drives through the distracted driver course.
Stories warning of the dangers of distracted driving typically start with horrifying statistics and high body counts. You can look those up.
But you probably already know that driving with your iPhone in one hand and an In-N-Out burger in the other is a bad move (and not just because you are bound to drip grilled onions and Thousand Island on your new jeans). But how bad is it really? Everybody does it, right? Well, of course they do, that’s why we have those horrendous statistics and body counts.
And it’s also why seven teens screeched, spun and skidded their way through a driving course at Sonoma Raceway Tuesday morning when they should have been in third-period calculus or American history. Instructors from the Simraceway Performance Driving Center put students from Marin Catholic High School, Justin Sienna High School and Sonoma State University through their paces with a series of simulations and drills designed to illustrate just exactly how dangerous distracted driving can be. Most had been driving for only about a year.
The first set of exercises, the lane change drill, involved students accelerating in Mitsubishi Lancer sports sedans down a course lined with orange cones at progressively higher speeds with instructors giving them the directive to merge either left or right at later points before the lane diverged in either direction. The drill, meant to test decreasing reaction time in a controlled environment, simulates the effects of say, looking up from your phone screen to discover you are about to smash into a semi and veering left. Invariably speeds over 45 produced anything from a few toppled cones to spin outs.
“Think about what those cones represent,” said Jared Thompson, the head instructor for Simraceway’s Highway Survival Program, explaining that each one was a potential accident – a curb, a car, a bicyclist or pedestrian, a light pole.
“Statistically,” Thompson told the teens, “driving a car is the most dangerous thing you do on a daily basis.” In fact, motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for teens in the U.S.
Officer Garrett Ray of the California Highway Patrol, on hand to relay first-hand experience of the potentials dangers, said, “I can tell you how dangerous distracted driving is. I can
write you a ticket for it, but today we can put you in a car and show you.”
When asked if they ever texted while driving, the students mostly acknowledged that while they knew it was bad they did at times – typically responding with, “I try not to,” or a sheepish grin. Judging by how adept they seemed to be at sending the messages, it would appear that they are fairly practiced in the art of driving with one hand on the wheel and the other on a touchscreen.
If so, they are not alone. In response to a 2011 Harris Poll, 49 percent of drivers under the age of 35 who owned cell phones said that they texted or read messages while driving, and a survey of 1,999 teens aged 16–19, conducted by AAA and Seventeen magazine, found that 86 percent admitted they had driven distracted (though 84 percent thought it was dangerous).
There are plenty of distractions already built into our driving routines – from opening windows to tuning the radio – that cause us to take our eyes off the road for anywhere from a split second to a few seconds. The second drill, the distracted driving drill, incorporated these activities, as well as texting, into a one-lap course that all the students drove twice – first completing various tasks while driving and the second time with complete focus.
“You guys were amazing at texting, which was frightening,” remarked instructor Tim Moser after the second simulation had been completed and all the times tallied. This, of course, did not refer to the times not being significantly slowed by texting or cones not being hit during the distraction exercise, but to the ease, facility and speed with which the students operated their phones (albeit while crushing orange cones and going the wrong way through turn-arounds). While they texted while driving very well, they could not drive very well while texting.
Drivers using cell phones in California face hefty fines, nearly $200 for a first offense, which should act as a significant deterrent. But the drills and exercises the young drivers went through in Sonoma reinforced how dangerous distracted driving – any distracted driving – can be. Officer Ray stressed that he’s not interested in writing tickets; he just wants violators to stop. “It’s causing accidents,” he said. “It’s causing deaths.”