By Virginia ‘Ginya’ Carnahan, APR, CPRC – Dattoli Cancer Center & Brachytherapy Research Institute
Here it is – April! Somewhere, someone has decided that this month should be dedicated in some degree to “Distracted Driving Awareness.” I’d like to know who this person is and how he or she got the weighty responsibility of creating these awareness programs for us. How much does this job pay anyway? Maybe I could apply for it.
Awareness, plain and simple, is a key ingredient in responsible driving. In the demanding environment of driving today there are so many real and potential distractions as to make driving well really difficult. Those of us who have been driving for many years realize that as the task has become more challenging, we have (hopefully) adjusted to these distractions little by little.
As the pilot of a multi-thousand pound vehicle, your first responsibility is to safely maneuver through traffic, obeying the laws and respecting others on the road until you reach your destination. That in itself is a huge challenge. The advent of the portable telephone has brought many conveniences to us and has lent a certain feeling of safety and security to the driving experience. After all, if we get a flat tire we can call AAA or a friend. If we witness an accident, we can call 911. If we run into traffic and anticipate being late for an appointment we can call ahead. Yes – good things. However, as it often happens, bad things come along with the good things. Cell phones really shouldn’t be used to catch up on neighborhood gossip, or to track down children on the loose, or give your spouse a shopping list – while you are driving! You cannot possibly be fully aware of everything going on around you on the road if you are talking on the phone. Even the use of a hands-free phone takes your attention away for the task of driving.
Let’s just think about it. For sake of this exercise, put yourself mentally behind the wheel of your car. You are alone in the car. First you need to buckle your seatbelt and get the car going. Perhaps you are in the garage or driveway or a parking lot. You put the car in reverse and begin to move backward. You need to be acutely aware of what might be behind you. Some newer cars come with a back-up camera and screen. These are wonderful! While you are watching the screen, don’t forget about the front of your car. If you cut the wheel too sharply, you can hit the garage walls or shrubbery or your son’s bicycle or a neighboring vehicle with the front fender of your car. (I had a costly encounter with a wheelbarrow that way one time!)
Assuming you have safely gotten out into the street, now you must become aware of at least four things: what is in front of you, what is to the left of you, what is to the right of you and what is behind you. I think a lot of people totally forget about what is behind them. You should keep your eyes scanning the side mirrors and rearview mirror at all times, while focusing on what is up front. If at all possible you should try to see what is way up front – in front of the vehicle that is in front of you. You’ll want to know if a bus is ahead of you, for instance. This could mean you’ll have to stop behind the bus as it pauses to unload and load passengers. If you are aware of the bus in enough time, and you know what is behind you and what is in your left lane, you can plan in advance to change lanes in order to avoid stopping behind the bus. Remember to use your turn signal to indicate that you are changing lanes. Simple.
In addition to these traffic considerations, one must be alert to physical conditions while driving. Is the sun shining – is it shining your eyes? Do you need to pull down the sun visor or slip on sunglasses? The sun can temporarily blind you if you are heading into the sunrise at morning or sunset at evening! Is your windshield clean? This can be very important during “Love Bug Season” – usually May and September around here. Are your windshield wipers in good condition to allow you to see in the rain? Is the pavement wet? Is their sand in the road? Ice? Gravel? Pot holes? All of these will require special attention for driving.
Is your vehicle in good working condition? Can you accelerate quickly if necessary? Do your tires still have decent tread on them? If you need to stop quickly, balding tires will not respond as quickly as those with adequate treads.
Observe the vehicles around you. Is anyone speeding and weaving around? Or maybe driving too slowly? Are there children playing alongside the road? Is there parallel parking on the road? Could someone stop quickly to zip into an open parking space, or suddenly back out in front of you? These are all things to keep in the forefront of your mind as you drive.
You can see that it is a full-time job paying attention to all these things.
If you are listening to the radio, this may be calming to you and/or entertaining, but don’t let it take precedence in your awareness. Some people listen to books on CD while driving. This can be dangerous if you are concentrating on the book and not on your job as navigator! If you are listening to the radio, do not have the volume so loud that you cannot hear what is going on around you. We have a tendency to keep the windows rolled up, the AC on and a radio or CD playing. We have effectively created an insulated bubble in which to travel. But – this can be a problem if there is an ambulance or fire truck behind you. You might not hear the siren until the emergency response vehicle is right on top of you!
Another common distraction while driving is eating and drinking. This really isn’t safe – but most of us do it from time to time. Nothing is as distracting as spilling hot coffee in your lap! If you drop a French fry don’t go searching around for it with one hand on the wheel. Wait until you stop, please. The best way to avoid food distraction is not to eat or drink while driving.
All of this discussion has meant to describe the potential distractions you may encounter while ALONE in the car. Add to this mix a crying infant, two bickering teenagers, a hard-of-hearing elder, an inebriated spouse or a rambunctious pet and you’ve got a real “hot mess” on your hands. These are your distractions; think about the distractions in the other cars and it is easy to understand why there are so many wrecks on the highway.
The only way to improve your distracted driving is to be aware of it and to try to enhance your concentration while driving. My last piece of advice is to obey speed limits. They are there for a reason – and that reason is your safety and the safety of others on the road with you. Please set a good example for the next generation to enter the driving public!
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