Distracted Driving: It Was Just an Accident, Right?

Posted on August 8, 2016


Why we need to shame distracted drivers

Since time immemorial, people have gone out, gotten drunk, and staggered home on foot or let their horses find the way.  Once cars were invented, it didn’t seem to occur to anyone that the pattern should change at all… until Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was founded in 1980.  My own driver’s license was already a few years old by then, and I can vouch for the facts that:  1) any time you saw someone driving erratically, they were almost certainly drunk; and 2) I personally knew a LOT of people who routinely drove drunk because that was just how you got home after a night of partying.

Despite tens of thousands of drunk-driving deaths per year, people just didn’t see much wrong with the idea of having a little fun and then driving home.  After all, they had driven home drunk lots of times and nothing bad had ever happened.  They weren’t going to wreck or kill anyone, right?  Until, of course, they did, but… well, it was just an accident, and they didn’t mean it, and if they went to jail, who would support their families, and how would that help anything?  It wouldn’t bring anyone back, would it?  Why, it could happen to anyone, and it was terrible, just a terrible thing to have to live with, and we shouldn’t punish them so harshly.  And usually, we didn’t.

If you are under 40, you might have trouble grasping just how prevalent this view was.  But even judges often sympathized, and legislators dragged their feet enacting harsher laws.  There was a very definite “there but for the grace of God go I” mentality in the air, and often more empathy for the driver than for the victim.  I suspect that this was because there were far more people driving drunk, and therefore able to identify with the drivers, than there were people who had experienced a direct personal tragedy connected to drunk driving.  When MADD began their campaign as victims’ advocates, they faced a huge amount of resistance and even ridicule.  But through intensive PR and getting some key leaders on their side (notably, President Reagan), MADD succeeded in turning a normal, accepted, even expected behavior into one that is socially unacceptable, shameful, and much more harshly punished than it was before.  And that has saved an estimated 300,000 lives in 30 years.

So here’s my question:  when is this going to happen with distracted driving?

When I drove in 1980, most other cars seemed to be driven competently most of the time.  They stayed in their lanes, they kept a steady speed.  Even reckless speeders usually managed to at least stay on the pavement.  The weaving, erratic drivers were pretty much confined to certain predictable hours of certain predictable days.  As for distracted driving, it was a rare person who would drive around with his road map open in front of his face, and he was invariably an object of scorn, even if he managed not to wreck.  We might not have seen drunk driving as an issue, but we knew that was an issue.

Today?  Not so much!  I see the same erratic driving, but now it is at all hours of the day and night, even in the thick of rush hour.  While I might spot one or two erratic drivers on a weekend night in 1980, now I will spot a dozen or more anytime I go anywhere.  Just two days ago, I was behind a woman who drove for over a quarter-mile with her car straddling the oncoming traffic lane.  Sure enough, she was holding her phone in front of her face to use the GPS function.  And she had a passenger who could have done that for her.  Or could have died with her.  While the map-reading driver of 1980 was ridiculed as an idiot, the map-reading drivers of today are… everyone.  The tables have turned.  Now drunk drivers are shamed, but distracted driving is no big deal.  We think – wrongly – that we can handle it.

I truly believe that the distracted-driving problem is far worse than the drunk-driving problem ever was, and our current social attitude about it is exactly the same as our social attitude was toward drunk driving in 1980.  It’s illegal – according to a patchwork of highly varied laws in different states –  but everyone does it.  There are accidents and deaths as a result, but we don’t hear much about it in the media.  Just as with drunk driving before 1980, there is no outrage.  So many people are doing it so often, they are convinced that they know what they’re doing and they won’t cause an accident.  And if they do, well, there but for the grace of God go I, right?  They didn’t mean it; it was an accident, after all.  They are good people.

Well, drunk drivers are good people, too.  They don’t get behind the wheel intending to kill anyone; these things are just accidents.  But we see it for what it is:  an irresponsible choice that gets people killed.

Distracted driving is exactly the same:  an irresponsible choice that gets people killed.  The government is doing something about it; so are various grassroots organizations.  But where is the public outrage?  Where is the shame and social condemnation for distracted drivers?