NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Smartphone, Dumb Driving

Ah, spring — when a young man’s fancy turns to … cruising. Roll the windows down, turn the tunes up and step on the gas.

Or a young woman’s, for that matter. It’s the “young” part that counts. Whether that’s true for you in real time or merely a distant memory, there’s something about driving on these long early summer nights that encourages endless possibilities. The streets seem to come alive with hormone-happy young drivers.

And elders fret. They fretted when I was an actual youth myself. They’re fretting now that I’m one of them. And there’s more to fret about than ever. It’s not the traffic congestion or youthful mating behavior that makes more mature tempers quiver close to rage, mind you. It’s how they drive.

As a former youth, I do remember taking a certain degree of delight in old folks’ discomfiture back in the days of cruising Broadway with my minty-fresh license. Trapped in traffic while traversing downtown, Old People would spear us with the evil eye as they rolled up their own windows to smother the blasting strains of “In a Gadda da Vida.” Squares!

We weren’t doing much of anything wrong … especially if you don’t count fiddling with the radio, swiveling our heads to inspect all the other teenagers on the pavement, rating the desirability of every male and each cool car with our companions, running around the car at stoplights, and digging through our pockets for enough change to stop at M&H for a tank of 25-cent gas.

Ah, simpler times. Now that I have ripened a bit myself, I’ve come to realize something shocking about those irritable old people and their attitude toward young hands on the wheel. (Get ready for it.) They. Were. Right. And then some. They were so right that I can’t stop myself from channeling Clint Eastwood here: “You doggone kids, get off my asphalt!”

Surprise, surprise! Time and technology have not improved the habits of very young drivers. (Who qualifies as “young”? I count anyone who didn’t get that reference to Iron Butterfly a couple of paragraphs back.) While hormones and warm summer nights remain constant, “distracted driving” has become a far different form of peril.

I do recognize that honking at friends and singing along with KQWB could have been a tad distracting back in the day. Our amusements may have sidetracked us from time to time. Yet we were caught up in the moment — anchored in real time and three-dimensional space.

The ubiquitous iPhone has changed all that. Texting, taking selfies, browsing Facebook and tweeting are potentially deadly. Steering the car and operating its brakes may or may not seem sufficiently urgent in the moment to prompt drivers to put cyberspace on hold and pay attention to what they’re doing in real time.

I’m not merely relying on crotchety complaints, hearsay and the near-misses I seem to witness every day on our highways and byways. Let’s talk hard evidence.

AT&T, which has a big ol’ dog in this fight, released a survey this week that sends shivers down my backbone whenever I fish the car keys out of my purse. The data reveal that fully seven in 10 people are using smartphones while they drive.

That does include drivers of all ages. But who’s likeliest to indulge? Let’s just say it’s not Grandma peeking over the steering wheel. The youngest licensed drivers are far, far more likely: 72 percent of drivers in their late teens use their phones while in motion, compared with 32 percent of those 65-plus.

And just what are you doing with that device? The more notches your age ticks upward, the likelier it is that you’re actually talking. While sharing your thoughts may waylay some part of your attention, at least you don’t need to look at your fingers.

Not so with texting. Four in 10 drivers admit to using social media with their foot on the gas. Research confirms that simply reading a short message eats up five or six seconds of eyes-off-the-highway. How long to send one? Let’s hope you’re not long-winded. Even “DNT DRV N TXT” takes awhile to tap out.

Six in 10 of the drivers surveyed by AT&T said they send and read texts. But that’s just part of what the folks in those passing cars are up to:

  • Email — 33 percent.
  • Surfing the Net — 28 percent.
  • Facebook — 27 percent.
  • Snapping selfies or other photos — 17 percent.
  • Twitter — 14 percent.
  • Instagram — 14 percent.
  • Shooting a video — 12 percent.
  • Snapchat — 11 percent.
  • Video chat — 10 percent.

Here are three more dispatches from the Real World:

  • Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teens – more than one in three.
  • For every mile driven, teen drivers are four times more likely than older drivers to crash.
  • Distracted driving causes at least one in 10 fatal crashes … and younger, inexperienced drivers under the age of 20 have the highest proportion of distraction-related crashes.*

Multitasking is a myth … and smartphones are a menace. Fielding texts while zooming down the road — like the reckless habits that prevailed in my own generation’s day — accomplishes more than irritating the elders. Both practices tend to thin the herd … and in that one sense, the iPhone is more efficient.

Face it: The Information Superhighway and Interstate 94 are mutually incompatible. Don’t get your ticket punched for “driving while dumb.” Please put down that phone.

* Statistics have been gathered from the websites of North Dakota Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, AT&T and Center for Disease Control.

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