Eyes up while behind the wheel, or in the crosswalk

Monday, August 7, 2017

I was wasting some time, scrolling on Facebook the other night when I came across a shared post that made my heart break. A young father in Illinois was left trying to pick up the pieces of his shattered life after a horrific car accident claimed the life of his pregnant wife and three young sons.

In one instant, the picture-perfect life he was living was over.

On the morning of July 24, Lindsey Schmidt, 29, was taking her young sons to vacation bible school when a pickup truck ran a stop sign and slammed into them. She and one son died at the scene, the other two boys passed away in the hospital days later.

Police are investigating the cellphone of the other driver to see if he was texting at the time of the crash. An early citation for disregarding a stop sign was dismissed to avoid any possible "double jeopardy" issues that might arise if further charges are made.

Now, the investigation isn't complete. No charges have been filed. But the concern over the drivers' cellphone records brings to question an issue which has been in the headlines here in Iowa over the past month — texting and driving.

On July 1, a new law went into effect that makes texting and driving a primary offense. That allows law enforcement to issue citations if they simply observe someone driving and texting. Previously, drivers could be ticketed for texting only if they committed another offense, like speeding.

Opponents point to governmental overreach. I argue that it is a common sense reaction to the reality of today — people are tethered to their phones, often at the expense of safety and quality interactions with others.

There have always been distractions in the car. Crying children in their carseats, radios blaring, a discarded soft drink can rolling. Heck, I remember as a teen making a turn, having the snack that was on the center console fall to the floor and reaching down to pick it up — all the while continuing to turn. I went over the curb, over the parking and onto the lawn before I was able to get my wits about me. Luckily no damage was done — and I had a message seared into my brain which has stayed here all these decades later — keep your eyes on the road.

Things happen in an instant — of that we can be sure. And, we can only control our own actions — not that of other drivers.

However, on any given drive from the south T in Spencer to the north Y, I have spotted drivers coming at me with their eyes not on the road, but down, toward the phone which is undoubtedly in their lap. I've seen folks checking their makeup, putting on lipstick, and reaching behind them to scold a child — all while moving forward at the controls of their car.

It just makes sense to put the phone down when you put the key in the ignition.

But it's not just drivers who are in danger, and dangerous, when they are texting. More and more cities, including Honolulu, HI, have passed laws to make it illegal to view a mobile device while crossing a highway.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that in 2010, 1,152 pedestrians were treated in emergency rooms after being injured while using a cellphone or other electronic device — and that number had doubled from the previous year. While I couldn't find more recent studies which definitively pointed at cell phones as the cause for pedestrian injuries, a stroll around town can give you some pretty clear nonscientific illustrations.

Life is a pretty fragile thing. And it's fleeting. I wish more of us would look up from the manufactured world and around at the real one.

We would be safer — and better.