By Rick Bernardi
Joe Fasanello had stopped his bike at a stop sign in Peculiar, Missouri, waiting for cross traffic to clear. He had a GoPro mounted to his bicycle helmet, which is how he captured what happened next:
Peculiar Police officer Charles Wallace (really, I don’t know how else to write this!), distracted by his phone while driving, ran into Fasanello head-on while Fasanello was still stopped at the stop sign. The reason was obvious—As Officer Wallace admitted, he had been looking at his phone and “I wasn’t paying attention.”
It could have been worse. When Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff Andrew Wood was texting and emailing while driving in 2013, he slammed into cyclist Milt Olin from behind at 48 MPH, killing him on impact.
Related Article: Deadly Distractions, Part 2
These aren’t isolated incidents. Statistically, we can expect that 285 of the 3166 distracted driving deaths in 2017 were the result of texting while driving, and 443 of the 3166 distracted driving deaths in 2017 were the result of cell phone use while driving. We already know that any cell phone use—whether hand-held or hands-free—while driving has the same effect on driver reaction time as a Blood Alcohol Concentration of .08, which is legally DUI in both California and Oregon. We also know that texting while driving is six times more likely to cause a car crash than driving under the influence of intoxicants.
And yet California treats texting while driving as a minor traffic violation right up until the moment a texting driver kills, at which point, we can expect serious criminal charges to be filed. The message from California is schizophrenic—texting while driving is no big deal, so the fine is only $20. Unless you kill somebody, at which point you’re probably going to be facing some serious felony charges.
Contrast that approach with California’s DUI penalties. You know California doesn’t want people to drive under the influence, because the penalties for DUI are serious, and only get worse if you kill somebody while DUI. The message is unmistakable—don’t drive drunk. There’s a strong deterrent to keep people from driving drunk, and even stronger consequences if they disregard that deterrent, drive drunk anyway, and kill somebody.
So why the disparity between how we deal with DUI and how we deal with deadly distractions? I think when it comes to DUI, people finally woke up to the serious hazard presented by drunk drivers because MADD made drunk driving a public health issue that we could no longer ignore. And once a social consensus developed that drunk driving was an unacceptable risk, stricter laws were passed, and people who might otherwise think nothing of having a few drinks in the evening and then driving home began to realize that drinking and driving wasn’t worth the consequences of getting caught.
With texting while driving, and even cell phone use while driving, we’re not there yet. Legislators pass laws prohibiting hand-held cell phone use, unwilling to recognize that both hand-held and hands-free cell phone use impair drivers the same as if they were legally drunk—and the impairment continues even after the driver puts the phone down. And texting while driving? Barely even worth a $20 ticket.
Related Article: Deadly Distractions, Part 1
And because nearly every driver has a cell phone, there’s a strong personal disincentive to recognize the dangers of cell phone use while driving. It’s as if we’ve all got our heads in the sand, unwilling to even admit that using a cell phone while driving is equivalent to being legally drunk. It’s too easy to rationalize away—I wasn’t holding my phone/I only had a few, I wasn’t using my phone at the moment of impact/I wasn’t drinking after I got in the car, I can text and drive because I’m a good driver/I can hold my liquor, and so on. Every excuse we used to make about drunk driving now has a cell phone variant. And until we tackle this problem head-on, we’ll continue to see lives forever shattered at the hands of someone who was driving while impaired.
Because we refuse to see the problem, our laws are unlikely to change. $20 tickets for texting while driving will seem like a “powerful deterrent,” until we do allow ourselves to see the problem, and do acknowledge that impaired driving is impaired driving, whether it’s due to the use of intoxicants, or the use of a cell phone. Then we will be ready to change our laws.
Until then, what else can we do besides changing our laws? To start with, there are a few actions cyclists can take to protect themselves:
- Ride with a camera. This is practically a necessity these days. Cameras can record exactly what happened on your ride, and if you are hit by a car (or even if you are the victim of a crime), the evidence can be used in court. When Sheriff’s Deputy Andrew Wood drifted into the bike lane and hit Milt Olin from behind, he claimed that Olin had suddenly swerved into his path. There’s a very good chance he would have gotten away with that explanation, but he didn’t because witnesses saw what really happened. Riding with a camera is like always having a witness with you, ready to testify about what really happened. If you don’t ride with a camera now, consider getting one.
- Ride with a mirror. If you ride with a mirror, you can see what is behind you, including drivers who are about to hit you because they’re not watching the road.
- If you’ve been hit by a car, assume that the driver was distracted. Assuming that the driver was distracted doesn’t mean that the driver was actually distracted. It just means that you (or in the worst of circumstances, your survivors) should never assume that the driver was paying attention to the road. Instead, you should look for evidence that the driver was using his or her cell phone while driving. Your attorney will be able to obtain second-by-second data from the driver’s cell phone provider that shows whether the driver was using the phone or texting, and when. Here’s why: Remember Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy Andrew Wood? He told investigators that he had been texting, but only while stopped at a traffic light. The District Attorney inspected a minute-by-minute record of Deputy Wood’s cell phone, and concluded that Deputy Wood was telling the truth. However, the attorney representing Milt Olin’s family obtained the second-by-second record of Deputy Wood’s cell phone, and discovered that Deputy Wood had lied—he had been texting while driving seconds before the crash. The takeaway from this is that you cannot trust what the driver claims. It’s absolutely necessary to obtain the second-by-second cell phone records of the driver.
There’s one other interesting avenue to solving this problem, and it comes in the form of tech solutions to a tech problem. One of the best is a product called Cellcontrol, which prevents the driver’s phone form receiving or sending texts while the car is being driven, while leaving the phones of passengers active. Another product called Groove blocks incoming and outgoing messages, while allowing apps like navigation and music streaming to continue functioning.
The drawback to these tech solutions is that they are currently voluntary. 55% of drivers indicate that they would voluntarily install technology to block incoming and outgoing messages while driving, but as long as the technology is voluntary, we are faced with the fact that 45% of all drivers would not install the technology. Ultimately, these tech solutions will need to become mandated by laws and regulations, the way we mandate seat belts, if they are to have an impact on driver behavior.
The most promising solution I’ve seen is the rise of the autonomous car. When you’re operating an autonomous car, the car itself is doing the driving (when it’s in self-driving mode), and if you’re distracted by a text, surfing the internet, or even Snapchatting while driving, the car continues to do its job.
The technology isn’t perfected yet—a cyclist walking her bike across the street was killed by a self-driving Uber car last year—and , and there are ethical considerations as well as technology issues that still need to be worked out. But it’s clear that the emerging new autonomous car technologies have incredible potential to improve traffic safety by removing human error and distracted driving from the safety equation. I recently had the opportunity to take a demonstration ride in a Tesla 3, and after experiencing the technology in person, I’m convinced that this is where the automotive industry is heading.
However, until that day arrives—and it is arriving, in the very near future—we have a traffic safety gap between the cars that are on the road now, and the cars that will be on the road in the future, and distracted driving will have to be addressed now, just as DUI is addressed now, through a mix of laws that act as a strong deterrent to distracted driving, and making the technology that eliminates cell phone distractions mandatory in all driver-operated cars.
And until that day arrives, the burden for traffic safety is placed upon cyclists to take whatever self-protection measures they can, including riding with cameras, using mirrors, and obtaining the cell phone records of drivers who cause collisions.