By Earl Perkins
Thursday Review Associate Editor
Millions of people went out the door and jumped in their vehicles yesterday, but some of them left a swath of death and destruction in their wake before the day was finished. Traffic fatalities in the United States rose 13.5 percent in the first quarter of 2012 from the same period in 2011 (7,630 versus 6,720). Those were just deaths, not those who were maimed, disfigured or inconvenienced for the rest of their lives.
You don't have to believe my figures. The government keeps remarkable complete statistics on just about anything you can imagine. That's why more than 35 states have enacted laws that at least partially ban cellular telephone usage while driving.
Folks don't generally worry about how their poor driving might impact others, but it has real consequences. I've seen just about everything, and I'm sure you've seen some incredible things going on when you were in traffic. Driving is not the time for having sex, talking on cell phones, texting, eating a meal, drinking, fiddling with radios, grabbing pets, disciplining children or applying makeup. These are just a few of the things going on out there, and local, state and federal government agencies have had enough. Many cities and states are installing cameras at intersections to gather evidence for tickets, and they're cracking down on cell-phone usage and seat-belt violations.
Traffic homicide investigators are studying cell-phone records to see if texting was a factor during fatal wrecks, as it was in a school bus accident involving a motorcyclist in Alabama last year. The driver of the bus was charged with vehicular homicide when phone records proved that she was texting only a fraction of a second before she drove the bus, loaded with children, directly in front of the biker—who had the right of way on a U.S. highway—killing him instantly. Taking the lead in January of 2008, California was one of the first states to enact tough new laws prohibiting the use of cell phones and other handheld devices while driving. The law was broadened one year later to include texting. Police officers have the authority to ticket drivers in California upon even the first infraction, with no written warning, and drivers under the age of 18 are prohibited even from the use of hands-free devices deemed distractions.
New York State took the law to the next level in July of 2011, imposing a minimum fine of $150 for texting and a maximum of $100 for simple cell phone usage. Additional fees and levies of as much as $85 can be added to these fines at the discretion of the court, and any violations in New York now carry a mandatory three points on the driver’s record. According to Reuters, as of February of this year over 118,000 tickets had been written to Empire State drivers, and the Governor Andrew Cuomo has requested that law enforcement agencies remain vigilant. Under the strict New York law, police do not need another intervening reason to pull over a driver—any use of a phone or handheld device is sufficient cause.
Florida is one of the worst states in the union for traffic violations, with millions of tickets written annually. There are about 16 million licensed drivers in the Sunshine State, and more than 200,000 accidents every year, one of the highest per capita accident rates in the nation. The Florida Division of Motor Vehicles website, which includes information provided by the Florida Highway Patrol, points out that in the Sunshine State cell phone use is still legal.
“Make safe driving your first priority,” the FHP article stresses. “If talking on your cell phone is going to distract you, don't use it while driving. If you are behind the wheel and you get a call, just let it ring! If the caller wants to talk to you, he will leave a message. If you suddenly need to make a call, pull over and stop your car as soon as you can.”
The takeaway includes other lessons as well. We all need to leave earlier on trips, pay better attention and drive defensively. Aggressive driving will get you tickets and more people will be hurt in needless accidents. Do you want children you love to be killed from careless driving? You can bet there will be times children and adults will step out from between cars without looking properly in all directions. It only takes one mistake.
Ask yourself how many people are out there driving around on drugs and alcohol, and others just have awful judgment. Passing the test to receive a driver's license isn't that difficult, and most people consider it a right—not a privilege. Look up statistics on multiple traffic violators—some of them kill people, keep their license and continue driving recklessly. You and your family are legally liable for your actions when you're behind the wheel, so please think about what you're doing out there on the road. You could lose everything you've ever worked for in the blink of an eye.
Even if you don't have lots of worldly possessions, you could lose your freedom. And don't look for mercy from the law. They've got plenty of power if you decide to get stupid with your local police, sheriff's department or your state’s Highway Patrol. In many jurisdictions, police can legally take you to jail if the address on your license is incorrect; that's falsifying a state document. They own your license and the tag. Driving is a privilege, not a constitutional right.
In some states becoming a habitual offender behind the wheel might land you in the sort of institution where you will be trained to make some of those license plates. I'm not piling on trying to make your day long. Don't you know somebody who has driven around the gates at a railroad crossing? That can lead to a fine of up $2,000 fine. Ask the Federal Railroad Administration or Operation Lifesaver. Railroad companies spend millions of dollars alerting the public to dangers around the tracks, but drivers of private vehicles do whatever they want.
Consider the harshest realities and the lives of others before using your cell phone or texting the next time you are driving. A few minutes of inconvenience will surely give you a safer drive.