texting and driving

Last week, I was driving home in the early evening when I noticed a little girl jumping up and down in the back seat of the car next to me. I sat and watched throughout the red light, wondering how her mom did not notice this happening. Suddenly, I saw the bright glow of the driver’s cell. She was texting away and oblivious to (or unconcerned with) what was going on a foot behind her.

When the light changed, she continued alongside me but never put the phone down. I felt like I had to get away, because I was afraid I was going to witness the worst. I went on, but in my rearview I could see her repeatedly crossing over the line, barely missing the oncoming traffic.

I thought, “How is this not illegal?”

At the time, of course, it actually wasn’t. Thankfully, this week, it is. It took Oklahoma awhile to get here, but now we are one of 46 states to prohibit text messaging while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Enforcement of the new law began Nov. 1.

The news about this is personally exciting for me, as I formerly worked as a contractor for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) as the region’s media support. For five years, I immersed myself in daily stats and news stories about traffic crashes and tragedies. I was a woman obsessed — just ask my husband who knows firsthand my reaction if you dare drive unbuckled.

Tugging at heartstrings

Over the years, I stood in the back of press conferences and hid my tears while people told stories of lives lost, and I worked with passionate people who were trying to reduce crashes and save lives every day.

I used to do my best to pull at your heartstrings, to reach you with semi-poetic text and catch phrases that would not only encourage but excite you to be the safest driver you can be. The writing was cheesy, but it was great. In fact, it would probably go something like this:

One text. One song. One email. I’m only reading, not replying. But it’s also just one second that it takes to cross a line, miss a light or not see a child in a crosswalk. And in that one second, lives are forever changed or taken away.

Yes, that’s terribly cliché, but it is also true. Have you ever looked away momentarily, then looked back to the road and thought, how did I get here? It happens. It happens easily. A car driving at speeds as low as 20 mph still covers a lot of ground.

Yet now, three years since taking a new job outside of traffic safety, I find myself slipping into the same bad habits I used to rally against: sending a short reply, looking up a song, etc.

Because the truth is, we all need a constant reminder when the world is at our fingertips. Waiting is not a game we are used to playing. And since texting while driving has not been illegal until now, the reminders have only been voices of reason. Who listens to those, anyway? But if the barrage of public service announcements has not affected you, maybe the threat of a fine will.

From texting tragedy came change

Sadly, it took the high-profile deaths of two Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers to bring about the new law, but I’m thankful change has come. Here is the operative language:

It shall be unlawful for any person to operate a motor vehicle on any street or highway within this state while using a hand-held electronic communication device to manually compose, send or read an electronic text message while the motor vehicle is in motion.

If you are caught, the fine is equivalent to a monthly phone bill — a $100 fine. In a state that only tickets $20 for a seat belt offense, that sounds like a pretty strong reminder. I know it will work to remind me.

For the purpose of this commentary, I tried to get some original quotes from OHP or my local police department, but my calls and emails were not returned (which is OK, because hopefully they are too busy looking for offenders instead of repeating catch phrases and crafting quotes).

I had planned to ask annoying questions, like, “Will other forms of distracted driving be enforced, like finding a song on an app or typing GPS locations?” and “Do you often work crashes caused by texting drivers?” But I am actually glad I didn’t get to ask these questions, because frankly, they are stupid.

I know the answers. You know the answers.

When you don’t pay attention to what is in front of you, in motion, navigating something weighing a few thousand pounds, you are going to make a mistake. You may only hit a curb or lightly tap someone in front of you, but you might also kill someone.

There is just nothing on your phone worth that risk.

Yet there was one question I would have liked to ask: “What do you think is the biggest challenge to behavior change?” This is a very difficult question. We live in a fast-paced, self-absorbed society where we are insulted when we have to wait. How do we take technology out of hands that compulsively cling to devices?

Again, I don’t think I need a quote from a trooper or officer for that. Lawmakers have figured out what it takes to change behavior, and, odds are, you are sitting on it. Your wallet. Cash money, baby. I no longer care if you text while you drive, because, if you do, you can pay for it.