So many times when driving around, I ask myself, ”What is wrong with people these days? Are they just plain stupid, homicidal or suicidal?” I’m referring, of course, to the widespread and outrageously growing habit of texting while driving.
On a clinical level of mental health, I wonder what new, modern mental illness will soon be named to describe people who do this. “Subconsciously suicidal ideation?” “Pre-homicidal aggression?” Or how about calling a spade a spade, and just calling it for what it is: Idiotic. Truly, as a Boston car accident lawyer, I have seen an alarming spike in the number of serious Massachusetts motor vehicle accident injuries that have been cause by people texting and driving – or talking on their cell phones while driving. It’s almost unfathomable that drivers would risk their own lives, their families’ lives, and the lives of others, to read a ridiculous text message, or answer a phone call.
How bad has this problem become?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that in 2015, approximately 3,500 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes caused by distracted drivers in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. That figure was up from about 3,200 in 2014. Automobile deaths caused by cellphone use jumped from 406 in 2014 to 476 in 2015. And even those figures are deceptively low: Motor vehicle accidents involving cellphones are widely underreported, owing to the fact that police (who are almost never eyewitnesses to the actual collision) are forced to rely on what drivers report to them after the fact – and those drivers aren’t going to admit they were using their cell phones.
To quote Deborah Hersman, president and chief executive of the National Safety Council, “Police don’t have a Breathalyzer or a blood test to see if [drivers were using] using their phones.” “Police officers can ask people, ‘Can I see your phone?’ but people can refuse, so then they [police- have to get a search warrant.” Which they are unlikely to do – and too many drivers know this. In New York state, tickets issued for texting while driving took off like a rocket from approximately 9,000 in 2011 to almost 85,000 in 2015. Here in Massachusetts, texting tickets exploded from approximately 1,100 to a little over 6,100 over the same 4 year period. In California, the number of people ticketed for texting while driving catapulted from less than 3,000 in 2009 to more than 31,000 in 2015.
Due to simple geometrics and physics, many police departments have found it hard to patrol for this problem. Reason? For a police officer in a typical cruiser to actually see what a driver is doing with a cell phone or other mobile device, they need to be positioned higher than the vehicle they are observing – so their sightline is looking downward. Knowing that texting and driving is illegal, most drivers using a smartphone will hold the device in their laps, to keep it out of sight in case any police happen to be nearby. “Some people call [this practice] the ‘red-light prayer’ because their heads are bowed and they are looking down at their laps [while texting]” commented Chris Cochran, from the California Office of Traffic Safety.
As a result, many police departments are getting creative in their quest to stop this insane behavior. Chattanooga, Tennessee police sometimes patrol in a tractor-trailer so they can be positioned higher than other vehicles, to catch texting drivers. In Bethesda, Maryland, a police officer even disguised himself as a homeless person, standing at a busy intersection and radioing ahead to officers down the road to look out for drivers who were texting. In doing this for just two hours last October, police handed out 56 tickets. Here in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, an officer regularly patrols town on his bicycle, which is higher than a seated driver, stops at stoplights and presents $105 tickets to them in the process. This officer reports that he gets the same answer all the time from people caught texting: ‘You’re right. I know it’s dangerous, but I heard my phone go off and I had to look at it.”
What these foolish drivers don’t realize, is that the next thing they look at may be an ambulance driver. I’ll talk about what Massachusetts and other states are trying to do to crack down on this insanity, in my next post in a few days. Stay tuned – because if the statistics are right, you’re among this population and you need to stop it. Now. For your own sake, if not someone else’s.