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Thoughts & Views: Driven to fatal distraction

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A few years ago, having picked up my brand new car at the dealership, I was driving home down Bloomfield Ave., stopped at a red light, and was instantly rear-ended.

“Great,” I thought. “The car is 15 minutes old, and already I’m in an accident.”

I pulled over, the auto behind me pulled over, and although I was aware of bump-and- run carjackings, any fears of that were assuaged when the careless motorist emerged. She was a petite, silver-haired octogenarian. Very apologetic. “I am so sorry,” she said. “I was talking on the phone and took my foot off the brake.”

Luckily, there was no damage. But this was my introduction to the perils of distracted-driving.

Elsewhere in this week’s edition of the paper, there is an article about a distracted driving report released last week by the Office of the N.J. Attorney General. It notes that, over a 10-year period, New Jersey recorded 1.4 million auto accidents in which distracted driving — usually involving use of a cell phone — was a factor.

The number of N.J. distracted-driving deaths over one decade was put at 1,600.

According to distraction.gov, a U.S. Department of Transportation website, distractions behind the wheel also includes: eating and drinking;
talking to passengers; grooming [yourself, not your pet]; reading, including maps; using a navigation system; adjusting a radio, CD player or MP3 player, or watching a video.

Watching a video? Who in their right mind would watch a video while driving?

If I were the DOT, I would rank these distractions in order of danger. Driving while talking to one’s passengers has been going on since the era of the Model T, and while I am sure this has resulted in accidents, it seems that true carnage arrived with the era of the cell phone.

First, it was just chatting. Now, with the advent of dumbphones, it’s texting and posting and playing games and who knows what. Can you now play online poker while you’re driving? I wouldn’t bet against it.

How often have you, personally, seen someone driving and holding a cell phone to their ear? How many times have you seen a driver reading messages or texting? You can easily identify these culprits. They’re the ones who are looking down at their laps instead of at the road ahead. How many times have you seen someone pulled over for these offenses?

As noted in the news story, police departments across the state are currently conducting a crackdown on distracted drivers. None of the departments that got grants to do this is in this area.

In Hudson County, one of the beneficiaries was Guttenberg. Guttenberg? The only community in N.J. smaller than Guttenberg is East Newark.

Grants or not, I would love to hear of a concerted anti-distracted driving law enforcement effort in The Observer towns. When the new yield-to-pedestrian law went into effect, drivers were being ticketed left and right — which was the right thing to do. The “yield” signs are still in place along many streets hither and yon.

So how about putting a few of those electronic warning signs around the towns telling people to put away the phone? Let the fools know they will be stopped and summonsed if they continue to put other people’s lives at risk. And then do it.

Maybe I am wrong. (I often am.) If tickets are being issued, frequently, to distracted drivers, my apologies to the cops for my ignorance. But I would love to hear of more concerted efforts — the way drunken-driving crackdowns are announced and conducted.

Gary Poedubicky of the state Division of Highway Traffic Safety referred to drivers’ use of electronic devices while behind the wheel as “an increasing addiction.”

Excellent description. Yet people who wouldn’t think of driving while drunk, people who have never used an illicit drug, apparently see nothing wrong with behavior than can be no less lethal.

That is a tragedy. Waiting to happen.

– Karen Zautyk

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