Lileks: Is it distracted driving if ... wait, I just got a text

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 24, 2014 - 7:58 PM

You probably shouldn’t take driving advice from someone who made history in driver’s ed when he drove his simulator through a schoolyard at 50 miles per hour in reverse. Glad I got that out of my system, though. But I’ve never had a real accident — a public statement that guarantees I will probably sail off a bridge into the Mississippi today — and I try not to be …

Hold on; got a text. Go on, keep talking, I’m listening, even though I’m staring at a small glowing screen and jabbing letters with my thumbs, uh huh uh huh, right …

OK. What now? Right: I try not to be distracted when driving. But I take my eyes off the road to check the rearview mirror, when changing lanes, because the car has a blind spot and you don’t want to get home and find you’ve had a Smart car hooked to your bumper for the last 30 blocks.

The police recently concluded a crackdown on distracted drivers, which I take to mean “pulling people over to make a point.” Over 10 days, 550 people were cited. Good! They say the average time spent looking down at a screen while driving is five seconds, during which you can travel the length of a football field. You say: They’re athletes; they can get out of the way. Heck, some might try to tackle you. You’re not getting the point: When you’re driving, you should be driving, and nothing else.

Not steering with your knees while you open a packet of ketchup to put on the burger in your lap. Not shaving. Not even lathering. The phrase “take the wheel, I need to tweeze my brows” should never pass your lips.

But is it wrong to check your phone when you’re at a stoplight?

We have trained ourselves to grab the charged wire of the Internet whenever anything else isn’t going on. Martha Stewart may have tweeted out a picture of some sticky buns. This cannot wait. A friend who just had a baby may have posted a picture on Facebook of a squealing rutabaga; this cannot wait. You may have texted a friend at the previous stoplight a question about a friend’s behavior last night, and if there’s a reply that says idk; smh — this cannot wait.

If a policeman sees you looking down at a stoplight, he might think: This driver has removed himself from the dynamics of traffic and is using a thin electronic device to send a message. When you might actually be thinking: I cannot believe I walked around all afternoon with this pasta sauce stain on my lap. If you were looking down at a stain, would that constitute distracted driving? Yes, if the traffic moved and you were transfixed by the tomato splat, thinking, that’s never coming out, and someone had to honk to jerk you back to your duties. But this would not be dangerous.

Yes, I have checked a text while stopped, 10 cars back at a light that lets three cars through, because the text was absolutely necessary information. Also for the same reason monkeys bang the lever that produces crack pellets in lab experiments about addiction. But mostly because it was an important text. I waited until the next red light to respond. (smh; idk)

I was rear-ended at a light once. The other driver wasn’t texting or talking. She wasn’t curling her hair or spreading cheese on crackers. She just sorta kinda forgot she was driving. This was Before Texting, so I was staring straight ahead, bored, contemplating life and the passage of time, when BANG. She was so apologetic. I said I understood. Heck, once I did 60 through a schoolyard, in reverse! She gave me the oddest look.

Sometimes the vehicles themselves provide distractions; I drove my dad’s chariot the other day, and the edge of the seat vibrates if you drift over the double line. This is distracting. You don’t expect to have a convulsive buttocks while driving. There was also a button on the steering that accessed the car’s innumerable sensors; I hit it by mistake, and all of a sudden the dashboard displayed the tire pressure of the various wheels. I tried to get back to the speedometer and hit a button that activated the car’s voice command system. It asked me what I wanted to do, and I shouted “Drive a ’57 Bel Air. Transform!” No good. He didn’t buy that options package.

In the 1930s, Life magazine did a feature about the perils of distracted driving. Illustrations showed which type of driver was hazardous: the dreamer, who was lost in thought; the lovers, who were smooching and grinning as the terra plane hit the hairpin; “Four in the Front,” which crammed passengers into the bench seat; the smoker who was chaining butts and looked down to mate the coals. And so on.

“The Scribe” was not among them. That would have been the fellow who composed telegrams while he drove. They didn’t do that. It would have seemed odd to suggest that anyone would want to. Can’t it wait? Probably yes.

 

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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