For every step I have to pay
The only thing that they can’t take
The guilt that spirals in my wake
The director of Bike Florida, Ron Cunningham, has written a poignant post about the death of a cyclist during last week’s event. Robert Paul King was killed by a distracted driver who drifted into the shoulder:
Mr. King was killed after being struck from behind by a fast-moving pickup truck. The driver, a young man, reportedly told police he had dropped his cell phone and was reaching down to retrieve it when his vehicle drifted into the marked shoulder where Mr. King had been cycling.
Rather than rant against the driver, Ron says this:
It takes only a split second of inattention to transform the mundane into the terrifying. I am certain that the young man who struck down Robert Paul King in an instant of distraction would dearly love to have that split second back. But he can never get it back. And now another cyclist is gone and another young driver’s life has been altered forever.
That is a picture of reality we would all do well to internalize. If we were all mindful of this possibility while operating our vehicles, there would be a lot less carnage on our roads. Unfortunately, the very fact that most people consistently get away with moments of inattention while driving leads us into complacency.
It is in the split second that the direct cause of the crash occurs. However, the split second is rarely isolated from a chain of events. There have been several life-changing split seconds in my own journey. Looking back upon them, it is easy to identify a progression of decisions — even a pattern of behavior — leading to the final split second. More importantly, each chain originated with an attitude or belief which allowed for the destructive decisions or behavior.
Distracted driving laws
There has been much discussion about creating new laws against distracted driving. What seems to be missing is an understanding of beliefs and how they not only drive behavior, but are typically resistant to superficial legal constraint.
I am most ambivalent about anti-texting and cell phone laws. I know they are popular. Of course, I share the same feelings as everyone else of wanting to do something about this irresponsible behavior. But aside from being virtually unenforceable until after a crash, I sense potential unintended consequences.
The driver turned around to talk to her 2-year-old son, who was in the back seat. When she turned back around the cyclist was right in front of her. Nobody saw her talking on her cell phone or sending a text…
In the past year, I’ve seen a number of instances where drug/alcohol impairment or texting is the only referenced criteria for punishing drivers who kill people. It used to be an unfortunate accident if the driver was sober. Now it’s an unfortunate accident if the driver was sober and not texting. Reach for a fallen object, turn around to talk to your child in the back seat, fiddle with your GPS or simply check out into a daydream and kill someone… oh well, that that could happen to anyone.
It would be so like our system to use the isolation of a few distractions to excuse others. Outraged as we are at fatalities caused by texting drivers, we are still unwilling to make ourselves accept the total burden of responsibility for operating a heavy, fast vehicle. Heck, most of us aren’t even willing to stop using our own cell phones. Even as we desire new laws to kick the latest deadly fad, we cling to exceptions for more mundane forms of irresponsible driving. I doubt many legislators will entertain an anti-distracted driving law written so broadly as to include what most of our culture believes are innocent distractions. The good news is, we already have a law against distracted driving.
Inadequacy and opportunity in existing laws
316.1925 Careless driving.
(1) Any person operating a vehicle upon the streets or highways within the state shall drive the same in a careful and prudent manner, having regard for the width, grade, curves, corners, traffic, and all other attendant circumstances, so as not to endanger the life, limb, or property of any person. Failure to drive in such manner shall constitute careless driving and a violation of this section.
(2) Any person who violates this section shall be cited for a moving violation, punishable as provided in chapter 318.
FS 316.1923 – Aggressive Careless Driving
“Aggressive careless driving” means committing two or more of the following acts simultaneously or in succession:
(2) Unsafely or improperly changing lanes as defined in s. 316.085.
(3) Following another vehicle too closely as defined in s. 316.0895(1).
(5) Improperly passing as defined in s. 316.083, s. 316.084, or s. 316.085.
(6) Violating traffic control and signal devices as defined in ss. 316.074 and 316.075.
FS 316.192 – Reckless Driving
(1)(a) Any person who drives any vehicle in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving.
Driving while distracted is a failure to use due care. We have existing laws and penalties for failure to use due care. When we look closely at the existing laws, their penalties and how they are enforced and upheld, we can see glaring deficiencies and dysfunction. There are seemingly daily examples of this, I’ll offer one that’s close to home.
A driver who was clearly not paying attention rear-ended a cyclist waiting at a red light, seriously injuring him. The driver was cited for careless driving, but the ticket was dismissed due to a loophole which requires the victim to identify the driver. In looking into this, I found the following on a defense attorney’s website:
Commonly issued following a crash, careless driving is almost synonymous with rear-end collisions. In most accident or crash cases, the officer is not present. They arrive at the scene, talk to the drivers and any witnesses, and then issue citation(s) if they can determine that party at fault. Under Florida law, anything you tell an officer at the time of the crash is privileged. Florida Statute 316.066 ( 7) clearly states that any statements made to law enforcement following an accident shall not be admissible into evidence at any civil or criminal trial. Therefore, anything the drivers tell law enforcement at the scene of an accident is privileged and can NOT be used against them, even when fighting a traffic ticket in court. Therefore, when you fight a ticket for careless driving in court, usually the case can only be proven through the testimony of the witnesses or other drivers. So if the person whom you hit from behind is unavailable for trial, and there are no witnesses, you have a good probability of beating the citation. Remember in Florida traffic court the officer is the prosecutor. There is NOT a municipal or state prosecutor. The police or trooper prosecutes his/her own cases. Therefore, they must depend on witnesses or drivers to help them prove the citation that they wrote.
The next step up from careless driving is aggressive careless driving. That citation requires a series of other violations leading to the crash. The crime which carries the most significant penalties is reckless driving. A citation for reckless driving requires proof that the driver was displaying a blatant and intentional disregard for other drivers. As a result, drivers who kill cyclists and pedestrians often receive no more than a minimal fine, if they are cited at all.
“She had the bad luck to hit a cyclist rather than another car, which would have left a dent.”
So, while the laws are in place, we have work to do to fix the penalty structures and close the loopholes. There is no silver bullet. When existing laws are made inadequate by a dysfunctional culture, new laws won’t improve anything. We have to fix the pervasive belief that roads are for cars and that those choosing to operate on them without a steel cage not only deserve their fate but somehow victimize the poor motorists who hit them.
Attitudes, beliefs and values
Fear of consequences only affects behavior if there is a reasonable belief the behavior will result in consequences.
Increased penalties are a means of retribution after-the-fact. But, unless one is a sociopath, the horror of killing someone through negligence should overshadow the fear of legal penalties. Therein lies the problem. Fear of consequences only affects behavior if there is a reasonable belief the behavior will result in consequences. People engage in distracting behaviors while driving because they don’t believe anything bad will happen.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons released survey results which found that although 94% of American drivers believe that distracted driving is a problem, none of those surveyed considered their driving unsafe.
83% of respondents reported that they drive safely, but believe that just 10% of other drivers do so. In addition, 20% of respondents noted they can perform other tasks while driving without compromising their driving ability.
“We’ve learned that we have more work to do to get to people to realize that the behaviors they engage in behind the wheel are more than small habits — they are distractions,” Berry said. “We’ve also learned that there is a disconnect between what many drivers report observing and what they report practicing.
With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine increasing penalties can be an effective measure of prevention. Don’t get me wrong, I do think we should increase the penalties for irresponsible behavior. The current penalties for killing someone with a car are a joke. The lack of traffic justice allows people to keep driving after they have demonstrated time and again they don’t deserve the privilege. It also contributes to our cultural denial and avoidance — brushing off crashes caused by irresponsible driving as unfortunate accidents. But I have doubts distracted driving laws or increasing penalties for existing due care laws will significantly change behavior without other forms of intervention.
Look for the backlash when some nice member of the community faces jail time for the horrific result of a moment of inattention. As I’ve said before, the majority of drivers engage in some form of distraction some of the time, and most get away with it every time. “There but for the grace of God…” right?
Prevailing beliefs are more likely to influence justice than legislative changes.
We must change beliefs to change behavior. Distracted driving originates with a belief that driving can be done with limited attention. Over-confidence is bolstered by the pervasive self-indulgent attitudes. Few people are mindful of the effect of their behavior on others. As a culture, we place little value on our role in the community or the long-term impact of our short term wants (this extends to far more than driving, but it most certainly manifests behind the wheel in a range of destructive behavior that we’ve come to accept as a fact of life).
It also doesn’t help that we’ve spent the last half century purposely engineering our roads to be driven with limited attention. Nor that we’ve bought into land use policy and lifestyle choices which increase time spent engaged in a boring and unproductive activity. It is further unhelpful that the car companies have decided to pander to the desire for in-car distractions.
We hear a lot of victim’s stories in PSAs, but I wonder if they have the intended effect. They make the viewer not want to be victim. They may even make the viewer mad at the perpetrator, especially if s/he is faceless. But the intention is to change the viewer’s behavior so as not to cause harm to others. For that to happen the viewer must connect with the reality of what it’s like to cause harm to others—not just the split second of horror, but the attitude and pattern of behavior leading to the crash and the long-term social and psychological consequences after it.
Ron Cunningham captured a piece of that. I only wish we had some way to embed the reality of his words into the hearts and minds of every driver: “I am certain that the young man who struck down Robert Paul King in an instant of distraction would dearly love to have that split second back. But he can never get it back.”
“I was looking up every couple seconds or so, like I always did and I just hear a loud scream next to me and the next second I look up and I see a bicyclist crash in the windshield.”
Is it possible to push the public past simple empathy for the driver (which currently makes us unwilling to increase legal penalties) into owning the responsibility to pay attention? The young man in this video (4:13) has told his story as part of his sentence. He says he had done the behavior (texting) and gotten away with it numerous times before the moment he did it and killed someone.
There is no rewind. It’s a nightmare from which you don’t awake. What’s instructive is beyond the split second — the chain of events, the underlying beliefs and a pattern of behavior which previously escaped consequences. Look at that and you can see it coming. That’s the message. It’s not an “unfortunate accident” that can happen to anyone. It’s the result of unexamined destructive behaviors we’ve accepted as normal.
We’re not helpless to change, most of us simply choose not to.