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Bend Drivers Not Drunk, Just Texting! 

I recently lost my Bluetooth headset. After finally giving up on the search, I’m planning to replace it soon at a cost of roughly $40. That will make $80 so far that I’ve spent on headsets for myself, another $40 for my wife’s Bluetooth and a grand total of $120, or thereabouts.

That’s about the equivalent of the fine that the state levies under the current cell phone ban law.  I know because I paid that, too. Or at least me wife did after she got pulled over for chatting on her phone while driving home from work. She had a lot of excuses. She’s too busy and distracted with two young kids to make her phone calls at home. She’s busy at work and needed to talk to one of her fellow students from her MBA class about an upcoming assignment. Like some other drivers that I’ve talked to she thought she would just toss the phone if she saw a cop. Well she did see a cop, but not before he saw her talking on her iPhone. Ironically, my Bluetooth headset (this was before I lost it) was sitting only a few inches from her phone in the center console. But it wasn’t set up for her handset and the Bend cop who stopped her was less than sympathetic.

So was I.

You see I’m not all that fond of my headset. I don’t like it sticking in my ear. I hate fumbling around with it. I didn’t like spending the money on it. But I also know the statistics about cell phone driving and the research is unequivocal: talking and texting while driving hugely increases your chance of getting into an accident. That means that you’re much more likely to hurt yourself and, more importantly, an innocent victim when you pick up your phone behind the wheel. Last year, more than 6,000 people were killed by “distracted” drivers and nearly a half million more were injured. According to federal studies, people texting – something that’s more common than many might think – are 20 times more likely to be involved in a crash.

This isn’t new information, we’ve known for years that cell phone use leads to accidents. In Oregon it’s been illegal for almost a year to drive and dial. Yet, it seems every time I drive across town I see someone yakking into his or her handset. I see mom’s chatting as they pull out of the school parking lot after dropping off their kids at my daughter’s elementary school. It seems everyone does it. One thing they almost always have in common is their poor driving – a result of their distraction. They don’t signal turns; they fail to yield. Often, they can’t even keep to their own lane. When I see someone make a stupid move, the first thing I do is look up to see if I can’t spot the tell tale left hand to the ear that let’s me know their attention is elsewhere. My favorite is when somebody cuts me off in a roundabout or at a four-way stop and then raises their hand and smiles to acknowledge that they’re not being rude – they’re just distracted. “Sorry, I’m on the phone, didn’t see you there,” they seem to be saying. Usually, I just blow it off. Nothing worth getting worked up about. And it’s not like I’ve never broken a rule of the road. But I wonder would it be any different If I pulled up a half empty bottle of Wild Turkey from between my legs and tipped it another driver’s direction, “Hey, sorry about that, I’m just a bit tipsy. No offense!”

Maybe we need bigger fines or more aggressive enforcement to get folks’ attention. Maybe as transportation secretary Roy La Hood hinted recently, we’ll need some sort of jamming device to stop drivers from breaking the law. I’m not sure what the answer is at this point. But I do know that there are a large number of drivers out there who just don’t get it. As a father of two young girls who are just starting to venture out on their bikes, that scares the hell out of me. I also realize that we’re on the front of the information revolution and that devices like the iPhone and Blackberry aren’t going away. My guess is that one day in the not too distant future we’ll look at cell phones and driving the same way we now look at drinking and driving: As an irresponsible and socially unacceptable mix that has serious legal consequences. Until then, I’ll keep waving and nodding – while muttering, “Idiot.”


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