This morning I ran over three children while talking and texting on my cell phone. Sure they were metaphorical children represented by green traffic cones on a closed driving track, but I felt a little bad nonetheless.
Federal Way Sen. Tracey Eide (D-30) and Northwest Seattle Rep. Rueven Carlyle (D-36) held a press event in the Qwest field parking lot to promote their anti-texting while driving senate and house bills. The legislation would make it a primary offense to hand hold a cell phone for talking or texting while driving (meaning it's punishable in its own right without being connected to another crime, like speeding). The event was cosponsored by the Driven to Distraction Task Force and the Swerve driving school who set up a driving obstacle course in the parking lot to simulate distracted driving.
Sen. Eide was the main sponsor of the 2008 bill that made it a secondary offense to use a cell phone without a hands-free device while driving. That means it's currently illegal to hold a phone to talk while driving in Washington, but the police cannot pull you over for it. If you were pulled over for speeding or running a light while talking on the phone you could receive an additional ticket. (The new rules would also ban teen drivers with an intermediate driver’s license from using cell phones at all.) The standard fine would be $124 or as much as $550 for a distracted motorist who caused a collision.
In her opening remarks, Sen. Eide outlined some of the statistics motivating her to revamp the cell phone ban. According to her, driving while talking on a cell phone is equivalent to driving with a .08 blood alcohol level, the legal limit. Texting while driving is equivalent to twice the legal limit. If a person looked down for five seconds to text while driving at highway speed they would travel the same distances as 1.5 football fields.
Rep. Carlyle gave a nod to potential detractors who will say this just a government power grab. “I had reservations about the overreach of government, but the data is too compelling not to do something.” A hand out from the "Driven to Distraction Task Force" cited a Harvard Center for Risk Analysis study that "cell phone distraction accounts for at least 2,600 deaths and 636,000 cashes every year in the US."
After the opening remarks, the driving course was open for attendants to attempt. It consisted of 10 or so cones to slalom around, a row of cones that simulated lane changing, and a big cluster of cones to swerve around that were stand-ins for the random obstacles you find in the road. Too make things tougher there was a traffic light that flashed to tell you to skip certain cones.
The four little Scions got grabbed up right away so I ended up in one of Swerve's gigantic work trucks, a Toyota Tacoma I’m pretty sure. Former professional race car driver Dominic Dobson, now Chief Advancement Officer of the LeMay car museum was in attendance to support the legislation, and he hopped into the passenger seat of the truck to ride along. Given that I mostly ride a bike around the city, and occasionally drive a little Jetta, driving the course in a huge truck seemed tough as hell without the distractions of a cell phone.
I took three laps around the course. First with both hands on the wheel (no casualties), then while talking on the phone, then while trying to send a text. I took the course pretty slow, but I still knocked down a handful of the cone children on those runs. It was damn near impossible to type out a text while swerving around cones, and I didn’t even see the flashing traffic light on my second two laps around the course.
Dobson and I switched places after my third lap. Shocking as it may be, he is a way better driver and took the course going at least twice the speed I had. But despite the fact that he made his career racing cars, he still hit a cone or two when he was on the phone and texting.
To be fair, nobody is going to be cruising through a slalom course on their daily drive, but the exercise still effectively illustrated the stark contrast between driving with your full attention on the road and driving with the distractions of a cell phone.