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Published: Saturday, 7/21/2012

A mother's dreaded call prompts a pledge against distracted driving

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

A friend recently got the phone call every parent dreads. Her 16-year-old son was in a head-on collision.

By some miracle, he's OK. An 80-year-old man in the 1999 Jeep Cherokee the boy was driving sustained serious injuries.

A suspected drunken driver, pursued by police, drove his Buick Century across the center line and struck the Cherokee. The Jeep rolled over, trapping the young driver and his passenger.

Police said the teen did all he could to avoid the crash. At the accident scene, my friend crumpled when she saw the heavy damage inflicted on both vehicles.

How the teen and the allegedly intoxicated driver survived with minor wounds is beyond her. But what could have happened keeps her up nights.

Imagining a worst-case scenario has made her a born-again believer in distraction-free driving. Maintaining a sharp focus on the road while driving responsibly and at all times defensively saves lives.

Making the right, split-second decision in response to the erratic operation of an oncoming car may have saved her son's life. A split-second distraction might have cost him his life.

The relieved mom insisted that her family make a pact not to use a cell phone or other portable electronic device while driving. No phone call or text message is so critical that it should compromise the safe operation of a moving vehicle.

I used to think that too. But like many other people, I've grown lax about driving and chatting endlessly on the cell, checking emails, surfing the Web, reaching for something to write with, fidgeting with the radio, eating, breaking up sibling fights in the backseat, and touching up lipstick.

There are close calls: A car stopping suddenly, without warning or brake lights. A distracted tourist, oblivious to surrounding traffic, turn lanes, or stop signs. An absent-minded driver swerving onto the corrugated berm, or drifting dangerously close to you, usually with a cell phone to his or her ear.

We grumble about distracted drivers even as we multitask behind the wheel. Our sole job should be driving cautiously, observing lights, signs, signals, and especially other drivers.

Attempting to reduce driver distractions under penalty of law is a popular legislative response. This year, Ohio became the 38th state to criminalize texting while driving.

The law, which goes into effect Sept. 1, lands hardest on drivers under 18. It will be a primary offense, punishable by fines and license suspension, for them to use any portable electronic device to text, call, or otherwise communicate while driving.

For adults, the same violation will be a secondary offense; an officer must first have another reason to pull over a driver, such as speeding. Evidently, any prohibition stronger than a slap on the wrist for older drivers glued to their cell phones would infringe on their personal freedom.

The statewide texting ban is not as stringent as many local ordinances, including Toledo's. It is a good first step toward eradicating dangerous conduct behind the wheel. But it doesn't go nearly far enough.

We need a committed cultural movement to change public attitudes about distracted driving. In the same spirit as effective campaigns against drunken driving, people must be regularly and forcefully educated about what's at stake every time they take their eyes off the road.

People jeopardize not only their lives but also the lives of others when they send or read a text while driving. They expose themselves and everyone else to peril when they become engrossed in a cell-phone conversation while driving.

Many of us are guilty of such behavior. We do it without fear -- until the consequences hit home.

The anguishing experience of another mother almost losing her son did it for me. What will it take for you to stop?

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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