Two Tons of Plastic and Metal

Aug. 1, 2011
I’m lucky to be writing this. I’m lucky to be alive. I nearly was hit head-on by a wrong-way driver on I-90 a couple of weeks ago.

I was driving home from a friend’s house around 10 o’clock at night, having turned down a second glass of wine. I was in the “curb” lane of a four-lane stretch of I-90 heading east into the city of Cleveland. I had just passed the invisible boundary between an inner-ring suburb and the city when I realized that an SUV, driving at a high rate of speed with its lights off, was headed straight for me.

I’m known for having quick reflexes (strange, when you consider what a klutz I am), and I didn’t stop to think. If I had, I would be dead. Instead, adrenaline took control and I veered left. Fortunately, the driver to my left did the same thing and our cars moved with the grace of synchronized swimmers around the SUV, which never slowed or veered as it raced in the wrong direction.

After I pulled off the highway and called the police, all the “what ifs” crowded my mind. What if I had had a second glass of wine? What if the driver next to me hadn’t realized what was going on and hadn’t shifted over a lane or if a car had been in the third lane? What if I’d been talking on the phone or had looked away for a second to change the radio station?

I’ll never know the answers to those questions, but the one thing I do know is that the incident really fine-tuned my Spidey sense when it comes to driving and distractions. I glance away from the road A LOT, I’ve realized.

I don’t text and drive, but I’ve been known to glance at my phone to see a missed call. I talk on the phone and drive, and not hands-free either. I change the radio station every 5-10 minutes because I’m easily bored. I sightsee as I drive. Construction zones, children, outdoor patios and animals distract me. But on the one night when it counted, I was looking straight ahead, paying attention to the road and to the cars around me.

My near-death experience, as I’m calling it, made me think about the fact that the average car tips the scales at around 4,000 pounds. Mine, an SUV with four-wheel drive, probably is closer to two tons or more, as was the vehicle that nearly creamed me. That’s tons (pun intended) of responsibility every time I get behind the wheel.

According to a University of Alabama at Birmingham survey, more than a third – 35 percent – of college students use mobile phone applications while driving. And they can’t even use ignorance as an excuse.

“The participants seemed to understand that using mobile apps while driving is dangerous, and some have even experienced motor vehicle crashes while using mobile apps, but they continue to do it,” said UAB student Lauren McCartney, who conducted the survey.

And college students aren’t the only ones. How many of us use navigation systems to “see” where we’re going? The digital signs popping up along interstates offering everything from Amber Alerts to drive times to advertisements are a guaranteed several-second distraction. And even if you don’t text or talk and drive, just the fact that your phone is ringing is enough of a distraction to potentially cause an accident. Add eating, talking, sightseeing, refereeing and channel changing to the list of distractions and you begin to realize how much time you spend watching the road and how much time you spend on activities that have nothing to do with driving.

I’m not going to ask you to eliminate your driving distractions. But I will ask you to do this for me: The next time you get in your car, pay attention to everything you do that is unrelated to safe driving and remember that the vehicle that surrounds you is 4,000 pounds or more of plastic and steel rushing down the road at (legal) speeds of up to 70 miles an hour.

Do you really need to eat those fries while you drive? Does it matter to you if it takes 10 minutes or 12 minutes to make it to the next interstate? Do you hate that song playing on the radio enough that you’re willing to risk your life to turn it off? I didn’t think so.

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