Dying To Drive

Russ Golla, Wisconsin Association for Justice

Unbelievable.

We are more at risk from distracted drivers than drunk drivers.

In Wisconsin, more than 10,000 people were hurt last year in distracted driving accidents. Often, it's because most of us instinctively answer a call even where we're behind the wheel.

But by taking that call your chances of being in an accident just jumped dramatically. Scientists who have studied the distraction caused by talking on a cell phone while driving have equated it with drunk driving - driving with a blood alcohol level of .08. They have also concluded that manipulating a cell phone while driving is the equivalent of driving with a blood alcohol concentration of twice the legal limit - .16.

Calls aren't the only problem. Think of everything we're all guilty of doing behind the wheel these days - sending texts, eat a snack, or change a radio station. We are a nation of drivers who do everything behind the wheel we can to distract us from the monotony of driving.

Now think of the times you've been on the phone when your child is in the car. Risking your life for a call is one thing. Risking theirs should be another. In addition to everything you've just done wrong by answering the call, you've also taught your kids a pretty bad lesson.

"Kids mimic their parents behind the wheel," said Tim Trecek, an attorney with Habush Habush & Rottier. "If they see mom and dad talking on the phone while they drive, they are more likely to do the same thing."

Many of our members, like Tim and 14 others from his firm, have fanned out statewide volunteering their time at driving schools to tell the story of the dangers of distracted driving.

"We teach young drivers how to talk to their parents and peers about driving safely," said Trecek. "Parents don't often appreciate the example they are setting, but when the kids see mom and dad exercising poor judgment behind the wheel that can translate as acceptable behavior when they drive."

Here's a scary thought. Right now, you, me, your kids, and the family in the car next to you are more likely to be at risk from a distracted driver than a drunk driver because there are so many of them on the roads. Most of us will never come into contact with an intoxicated driver. But think of the bad drivers you see every day talking on their phone, or reading an e-mail. We would shake our fists at their bad driving if we can only put down our own phones long enough to be outraged.

"DNT TXT N DRV," has been the mantra for the lawyers at Hupy and Abraham for the last three years. They've given out more than 200,000 bumper stickers, hundreds have signed an online no texting and driving pledge, and the firm produced a series of public service announcements asking drivers to make smarter choices behind the wheel.

"We're part of the community too," said Jason Abraham, "we took on this campaign to promote community awareness as well as safety and to save lives."

Equally frightening are the myths connected to driving and cell phone use. Hands-free devices do not keep you any safer. "It's an issue of dexterity versus distraction," said Trecek. "Just because you can 'operate' your phone, doesn't mean you can do it safely."

We can either drive safely or pull over and talk safely. No matter how much we kid ourselves about multi-tasking, you can't do both. Think about how many times you've missed a freeway ramp because you were talking on the phone.

The National Safety Council has designated April as Distracted Driving Awareness month and we support their mission. Clearly, thousands of Wisconsin drivers ignore the evidence and continue to drive dangerously every day putting themselves and anyone near them at risk.

Our members teach classes, sponsor public service campaigns, and will talk to anyone about our shared responsibilities. For us, this is a year-round responsibility and we would welcome even more invitations.

The reality is no one knows how many distracted drives there are on the road at any one moment. But we do know we're hurting and killing each other at a staggering pace and often it's because someone wasn't paying attention to their driving.

You can help. The next time your phone rings in the car let it go to voicemail. If someone sends you a text pull off the road to read it. If your kids are in the car that will send a louder message than any lecture. If you're alone, do the same. You and the world around you will be safer for it.

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