Learn from my crash: Put down the cell phone

I considered them jerks, but was one all the same — a driver who regularly cruised around with a cell phone mashed against my cheek.

Talking on a cell phone quadruples a driver's risk of causing an accident, making it about as dangerous as driving with a blood-alcohol level at the legal limit.

But until recently, cell phone makers fought attempts to ban the use of their products while behind the wheel. For years, in fact, the companies marketed them for just this purpose, which is why they used to be called "car phones."

This information was all in a long, investigative article published in the New York Times on Dec. 6. "Those bastards," I thought when I read it online Tuesday. Then, on Thursday, while driving on State Road 50 toward the busy intersection at Mariner Boulevard — in the rain — I picked up my cell phone and called my wife.

I'm not one of those drivers who's always on the phone. I'm not that in-demand. I don't text while driving because I don't text, period.

But our traffic is lighter than in places, such as New York, that I knew had banned the use of cell phones while driving. I used to tell myself it's no big deal to make work calls from the road or to check in with family. I even got in the habit of saving these calls for the car, when I figured I wasn't doing anything else.

I didn't notice the red Taurus until the brake lights flashed on, which is also when I noticed I'd been following it too closely. I stomped on the brakes, but the pavement was so slick that my skid felt like a toboggan ride. I folded my phone shut as I realized I was not just going to hit the car, but hit it hard.

That sound of crunching metal — I would say it reverberated in my chest, except that, at the time, my chest was being slammed by an air bag.

Postcrash, after the smoke from the airbags had cleared, I determined I was fine, but that my Ford station wagon was probably totaled — one payment short of outright ownership.

But even more than this thought, and the prospect of years of astronomical insurance rates, I was dismayed by the waste: the ruined cars; the time of the law enforcement officers who secured the scene and the EMS workers who painstakingly fitted the other driver, an 83-year-old woman, with a neck brace; the probable costs of her treatment and testing at Oak Hill Hospital.

Fortunately, she was quickly released and as far as I know not seriously injured. But taking into account her age and the wheelchair lift on the back of the car, a more severe impact might have added the waste of a life to that list.

So the charge against me — failure to use due care — didn't seem to match the harm I'd caused and could have caused. Nobody at the scene asked me if I had been using my cell phone. There's no law against it in Florida and probably won't be anytime soon.

It appears the Legislature is finally ready to take on the lethal practice of behind-the-wheel texting, but bills forbidding talking on cell phones while driving have died in the past, and there seems to be little support now.

Too bad. Standing in the median after my crash, I saw plenty of drivers rolling by with one hand and most of their attention devoted to a phone conversation. They didn't look like jerks any more, or at least not merely like jerks. They looked like lawbreakers.

Learn from my crash: Put down the cell phone 12/12/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 12, 2009 1:32pm]

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