I have discovered that staying up half the night reading tragic stories about families who have been ripped apart by death is not the way anyone wants to ring in the New Year. Sadly, those stories are anything but rare.
Children being dropped off by the school bus, then run down by a car while they cross the street. A group of five teenage cheerleaders pulling out to pass a car and then hitting a transport truck, head on. All five girls are killed.
You might think this column is about drinking and driving, but these tragedies occurred because drivers were distracted by their mobile phones. Correction: Drivers made it a priority or allowed themselves to be distracted by their mobile devices. The cell phones themselves are not to blame; it's the inappropriate use of them that's to blame.
You know, there's enough going on outside the car to pay attention to without being even more distracted by nonessentials inside the car, like flipping through text messages or searching a 5,000-song database for that perfect feel-good driving tune.
Everyone reading this column will nod when I say that using a hand-held cell phone while driving is dangerous and foolish. Yet, you'll find numbers and surveys all over the Web show that a majority of the very same people nodding right now have used their phones while driving, whether to take calls, read or send text messages; or attempt to find a ringing cell phone that has slipped onto the floor. That's what happened in 2005 when a distracted 27-year-old woman struck and killed a 5-year-old Ohio boy after the school bus -- with its lights blazing -- had dropped him off.
Maybe we continue to do it because we think we're much better drivers than others on the road and that tragedy can't happen to us or that we can't inflict it. The woman who ran over the 5-year-old boy probably didn't think it could happen to her.
So, while we support -- perhaps hypocritically -- the bans that many countries and U.S. states place on hand-held cell-phone use while driving, we should likely consider other distractions that are really no less significant. We've all seen people reading books, doing crossword puzzles and filling out lotto-ticket forms at the wheel. Should we now outlaw crying children from cars? Should we ban smoking, eating and drinking coffee? And how about loud music and fiddling with vehicle controls? Should we screen drivers for attention-deficit disorder and limit what they have in the car with them?
Extremists might say yes to all of that, but on what planet is that practical? Really, don't our police departments have better things to do than be on the lookout for rogue ADD drivers? Yes, they do, because I think the really glaring issue is not one of Big Brother control (because no one wants to be told what to do, and Big Brother control doesn't work, anyway), but one of self-control.
I find it shocking that there is so little logic in the world -- logic that would dictate turning off the phone before getting in the car because it's distracting -- that we actually have to be told not to be distracted. Sorry, legislated not to be distracted and ticketed for it if we become distracted. It's nuts.
What's worse is that we think legislating attentiveness will somehow help. I would regard anti-cell-phone laws as lip service to lobby groups at this point because the handful of police on the roads can't possibly enforce the legislation with any measure of effectiveness. These laws might as well be a simple acknowledgement that the government also thinks driving distractions are bad. The paltry fines only serve to prove that point.
But the real question and the point of this column is: What are you and I going to do about it? Rely on a handful of cops to hand out tickets every now and then while people continue to die on the roads, or are we -- the drivers who use the phones in the wrong place and at the wrong time -- finally going to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions?
We can begin the new year by turning off the phone before we get behind the wheel and by not calling others to pick up milk, chips and movies while on the way home. Yes, for some people the cell phone is joined to their hip, but not when other peoples' safety is involved. Parents should have serious, even strict conversations with their teenage drivers who have grown up learning how to type with two thumbs. They're part of one of the most distracted and unskilled driving demographic on the road, prone to poor judgment. They need our guidance as well as laws and those laws to be enforced.
While threats of fines might provide some sense of comfort that this problem will eventually work itself out, we're the only ones who can provide an immediate and effective solution. Sounds like a good resolution to me.
Rhonda Wheeler is a journalist with Wheelbase Media, a worldwide supplier of automotive news, features and reviews. You can e-mail her by logging on to www.wheelbase.ws/media and clicking the "contact" link.