Editorial: On the road, mad multi-tasking must stop
Every time a person is needlessly killed on the road, a small city dies with them: family, friends, loved ones, co-workers, acquaintances. Even strangers who read the news, sink a bit and sigh, “too young, so many children, so unfair.”
“Save our city,” in the words of the The Doors, a legendary rock band that couldn’t save itself. “Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel.”
Last month, just before Christmas, two southern New Hampshire residents, former Amherst fire chief John Bachman and Katie Hamilton, a Brookline mother of three, were killed by vehicles whose drivers were distracted, one while reading a text message on his cell phone, the other by a distraction yet to be determined.
We may never know exactly how many of the 122 fatal crashes that occurred in New Hampshire last year were at least in part due to the use of a cell phone or some other device while driving. So far, the police have attributed 14 to distracted driving. Yet it’s safe to say that cell phone use played a role in scores of non-fatal accidents, everything from fender-benders to bicyclists run off the road.
The mad multi-tasking has got to stop.
The Legislature will soon take up two bills restricting or banning the use of cell phones and other devices while driving. One would prohibit the use of hand-held phones while driving by anyone other than emergency personnel. Simply holding a phone to one’s ear while behind the wheel of a vehicle in motion would trigger the presumption of guilt and a potential $100 fine. The proposed law would not limit the hands-free use of mobile phones.
The second, broader bill would prohibit the use of any hand-held mobile device, including to send or read a text, make a call or enter GPS coordinates while driving or temporarily stopped in traffic. The hands-free use of such devices would be allowed if, that is, the user is over age 18. Younger drivers would be banned from the use of devices, hands free or not.
Both bills, singly or in combination, deserve to become law. Studies conducted for AAA, the National Transportation Safety Board and other agencies, all conclude that entering or reading information on an electronic device is as dangerous or more dangerous than drunk driving. Using a cell phone while driving increases the risk of an accident, several studies found, by a factor of four. Texting, according to a Virginia Transportation Institute study, increases that risk by 23 times.
The jury is still out over whether the hands-free use of a cell phone increases the risk of a crash, though researchers agree that doing so is riskier than talking to a passenger, since most passengers, particularly when in the front seat, also tend to keep their eyes on the road and warn of danger. Absent strong evidence of increased risk, however, the hands-free use of mobile phones should remain legal.
The ban on all cell phone use by young drivers is completely justified. Becoming a truly good driver, one who reflexively scans the landscape for potential hazards and instinctively and accurately solves the quadratic equation that determines when the gap between speeding vehicles is large enough enter traffic, takes years of practice. Older drivers can do it safely while reaching for a coffee cup or tuning the radio, research published in a recent issue of The New England Journal of Medicine concludes. Younger drivers cannot. That’s not to say that veteran motorists can safely shave, apply lipstick, read, eat a bowl of cereal or engage in other behaviors that horrify passing motorists.
Many states have already banned the use of hand-held devices while driving and cell phone use by young drivers. New Hampshire should do likewise.
The right to “Live Free or Die” does not include the right to negligently kill someone else while reading a tweet.