Not all bad driving caused by usual suspects

Friday, June 30, 2006

We've all seen them -- a young man or woman, talking on a cellular telephone, walking into a store. If we run into them inside, they're still on the phone while they shop. Back at the cash register, the checker is lucky if they respond to the question, "paper or plastic?"

As annoying as the above scenario is, it's nothing compared to the drivers we see. Keep a sharp eye out, and you'll notice that many of them -- a large portion in fact -- have a wireless phone perched on their should while they attempt to navigate our streets or highways. Heaven help the deer or wayward pedestrian who steps into their path.

Not surprisingly, a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that distracted drivers are a real problem in this country.

More of a problem, in fact, than speeders or drunk motor vehicle operators.

The researchers installed video cameras and data sensors to monitor more than 200 drivers over thousands of hours behind the wheel.

The 241 drivers monitored around metropolitan Washington D.C., were involved in 82 crashes of various degrees of seriousness.

And, in this electronic age, it's not just cellular phones. One agency official said the tapes also show drivers checking stocks and sports scores, programming MP3 players and reading e-mails, while driving 70 mph or more.

With more of us putting in longer hours at work, drowsiness is also a serious factor, increasing the risk of a crash by four to six times -- and it's a factor that isn't always cited in police reports.

The researchers were surprised to find that driving with a passenger, singing to the radio and even adjusting the radio or air conditioning resulted in lower odds of a crash, perhaps because the driver is more alert.

With many of us planning to be on the road this Fourth of July holiday, it's a good time for taking stock of our driving habits.

Of course, we must avoid drinking and driving over our national birthday, but let's keep drowsiness and distraction under control as well.

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