Drivers responsible for all deadly distractions

John and Carole Hall are gone; no longer will this married couple walk the face of the earth. Their children, Sarah and Michael, will never be the same again — not after the tragedy that shattered their family and changed the children’s lives forever. Four lives destroyed by a single incident, one accident. An accident that never should have happened in the first place.
The family was traveling in Maryland one year ago on Thanksgiving Day when they pulled over to the side of the road to allow young Michael to relieve himself in the woods. It was while they were pulled over that the accident occurred. A car, driven by 19-year-old Jason Jones, careened off of the highway and crashed directly into the side of the Halls’ car. John and Carole were killed instantly, and their daughter Sarah suffered a broken back. Young Michael, who was away from the car when it happened, watched the entire scenario play out before him.
We’d like to think it is still a fundamental part of the driver’s test that young applicants not swerve off of the road and cause accidents, and that demolition derbies still exist only in arenas, so why do things like this happen? Usually they occur when the driver is distracted by something or has something hindering his or her perception.
The common conclusion we draw when we hear of accidents involving compromised drivers is that they were intoxicated. But there is a new kid on the block in the race for overall driver ineptness. One that is responsible for some 650,000 crashes a year. One that was responsible for the accident that killed John and Carole Hall.
Cell phones.
Yes, everybody’s favorite little multi-purpose noise box. What took off as a business tool has become a coveted, up-scale trinket for adolescents desperate to look and feel important and is now a full-blown personal companion. Seemingly everyone has one, and cell-phone makers, savvy capitalists that they are, realize it is in their own best interests to add as many options to the gizmos as they can. With wireless Internet access, voice-mail and the latest up-to-date information capabilities, cell phones have become a multi-media, portable companion. A product such as a cell phone is made to be so industrious that it can be used anywhere — even places where it shouldn’t be — like our nation’s highways.
We’ve all seen these people, usually in morning rush hour. They have the phone in one hand and the wheel in the other, hopefully. Otherwise they’re shaving or doing God knows what. These people believe driving their car has to be a total multi-tasking experience. If you have that many things to do in the morning besides drive, then take the bus!
Accidents involving cell phones raise the issue of driver accountability. In the Jones’ case, there are different viewpoints as to just how fast Mr. Jones was traveling when he hit the Halls’ vehicle. One side says only 55 miles per hour and the accident resulted from the Halls’ failure to turn on their emergency flashers; the other side says the car’s speed was in excess of 90 miles per hour. Go ahead, try and guess which side said what. Whether Mr. Jones remained in his lane until the accident or changed lanes with reckless abandon, both sides agree on one thing — if Mr. Jones had not been dialing his cell phone, the accident would probably never have occurred.
But the accident did occur, and the excuse of dialing a cell phone is certainly not a worthy one to absolve someone of their vehicular responsibility. When we get behind the wheel, we are all responsible for ourselves, our vehicles and our driving. Any problems with our ability to operate a motor vehicle, be it alcohol consumption, drowsiness or cell phones, are just that — our problems — and thus our fault should an accident occur.
Whether or not it should be legal to operate a motor vehicle while talking on a cell phone is still being debated, though it’s already illegal to do so in Suffolk County, N.Y., the final destination of the Hall family before they were killed. But as events like this continue to occur, eventually legislation will follow. And it should. Between 450 and 1,000 people are killed every year in car accidents involving cell phones. In this country, we prohibit driving while intoxicated and while under the influence of some medications, among many other regulations, all with the intended purpose of preserving life by removing driver distractions. Cell phones will eventually follow suit.
When the legal foot does fall and it is deemed illegal to drive while using a cell phone, society will adapt to the “inconvenience.” Business men and women will still find a way to field all those annoying phone calls from people they don’t care to hear from anyway. You’ll still be able to keep a phone in your car, should you ever be stranded and out of gas 10 miles into an 80-mile trip. And for those of you who have a cell phone because “you really need it!” just wait until you’re out of the car to talk to your mommy.
Chris Schafer’s column appears alternate Wednesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]