"I know it when I see it!"

As I have said before, I think distracted or incompetent driving ought to be illegal. (While it arguably is, few police officers would ticket a driver for "incompetence behind the wheel.") Driving while talking on cell phones in such a way as to not pay attention to driving is one of my pet peeves, yet I don't think talking on cell phones should be illegal unless the driver is obviously impaired. Straying into other lanes or ignoring a green light while on the phone should be considered moving violations.

Well, here's another pet peeve: failure to stay in a lane because of impaired spatial awareness. This is becoming so common that I'm forced to engage in defensive driving on a regular basis, and while the culprit might appear to be large SUVs, I am not about to get on the "ban SUVs" bandwagon, because I don't think the problem is with the SUVs, but with the fact that the drivers of so many of them do not know how to drive them.

If I were a sexist bastard, I'd single out women, because it often seems they are the most frequent offenders. But that wouldn't be fair, because lots of men can't drive SUVs either; the reason so many women drive them is because they tend to drive the kids. And, of course, once you have more than two kids, the damned child seat rules make it impossible to use a regular car. But that does not excuse bad driving. What I suspect is happening is that women learn how to drive a Toyota Tercel or some small equivalent that sexist men would call a "chick car," and everything is fine until the multiple kids/child seat factor kicks in, which plops these former Tercel drivers behind the wheels of Chevy Suburbans or Ford Expeditions. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to guess what will happen. Either sex would have problems adjusting.

I'd like to think that there should be a common sense rule along the lines of "IF YOU CAN'T DRIVE IT, DON'T BUY IT!" but as to advocating special licenses, no way. How can common sense be legislated?

Yet the kneejerk reaction of most people to the failure of common sense by others is "THERE OUGHTA BE A LAW!" (A lot of people have proposed special SUV licenses.)

I'm wondering how this breaks down politically. It would seem that the greenie weenie types would automatically call for special SUV licensing, as their real goal is to ban the things completely. In general, I'd expect more liberals to favor this than conservatives. Libertarians in general dislike regulation and licensing, and conservatives tend to like SUVs for a lot of reasons (not the least of which is in reaction to liberals targeting them). But I don't see why anyone would disagree with the idea that knowing how to drive something before you drive it is a matter of common sense.

So is wearing a seatbelt. It seems to me that ticketing people for bad driving would therefore be at least as important as ticketing people for not wearing a seatbelt, but I don't think cops do it. More typically, they spend their time catching speeders, most of whom are quite competent and not in anyone's way. Going 75 on a highway designed for that speed is not dangerous, and they're generally targeted because it's an easy way to raise revenue. I suspect that handing out tickets for incompetent driving would prove an administrative nightmare. Again, because common sense can't be defined.

There are a lot of things people do which violate common sense. Cigarette smoking, eating the wrong foods, excessive alcohol consumption, wasteful spending, unsafe sex (or sex disloyal to your partner), showering without a bath mat, or even living in the wrong area when you could afford to move -- all these things indicate a lack of common sense. But most people would not regulate these things, not only because they're matters of common sense, but because they generally don't reach out and touch someone else. Bad driving, though, is much more likely to get someone else killed than anyone's sexual or dietary habits (of for that matter, drug habits, unless they get behind the wheel of a car).

Numerous times, I have barely avoided accidents with SUVs driven by incompetents. One time when I was running, an SUV struck me and its side mirror broke when it hit my arm. Because of a lack of spatial awareness, the drivers simply don't realize they have room. On another occasion, a driver was holding up a long line of commuter traffic simply because she would not drive between two huge trucks that were double-parked on opposite sides of the street while unloading construction materials. Two construction workers, one on each side, assured her that she had room and they were offering to guide her through. I could see that she did have at least six inches on each side, and that had she driven through slowly, there'd have been no problem. But she froze dead. Refused to budge. People behind her honked, and I could see that, far from "convincing" her, the honking only made the paralysis set in. She never did go forward, but these trucks were in no position to leave, as forklifts were operating, and there was stuff still in the trucks and all over the sidewalks. So, it took a full ten minutes for the workers to go all the way back and get each outraged driver one by one to back up and turn around, and find another street. Finally, the SUV driver was able to back up, turn around, and leave. After she did, "normal" cars like Toyotas and BMWs continued to zip through, while SUVs had to crawl through slowly. That woman should have been given a ticket, but suppose a cop had been on the scene and done so. I suspect a judge would have thrown it out once he heard her tearful story about how frightened she'd been.

In fairness to her, she was frightened. But when I'm trying to drive under a narrow railroad underpass built and designed in the era of Model A Fords and I see a frightened driver like that coming through with an SUV, then I'm the one who should be frightened if I have any common sense.

Such a thing ought to be a two way street.

UPDATE: No sooner did I post this than I saw a story linked by Drudge about an inattentive driver who nearly caused massive mayhem because he was playing with his, his, his Blackberry!

A Mercer Island man fiddling with his BlackBerry was cruising down Interstate 5's express lanes Tuesday morning in his minivan, oblivious that traffic ahead had come to a dead stop.

What happened next "could have been horribly tragic," said Washington State Patrol spokesman Jeff Merrill.

The 53-year-old man's minivan smashed into a car, setting off a chain reaction that included three other cars and a Community Transit bus, which was carrying 28 passengers.

According to the police, "inattention" is a major cause of accidents, and playing with electronic gadgets ranks high on the inattention list:
Operating a handheld communications device -- such as a cellphone or BlackBerry -- is No. 5 on the new list.

The top 4 are: distractions outside the vehicle; unknown driver distraction; miscellaneous distractions inside the vehicle; and interacting with "passengers, animals or objects in the vehicle."

I'd like to interject here that a good friend who was a Berkeley police officer told me that sexual distractions are a major cause of accidents, and I don't mean having sex, but thinking about sex. He said when a driver would blush and look embarrassed when asked what caused him not to pay attention to the road, he often knew what it was -- and it was usually the sight of a pedestrian the driver found attractive.

So why is sex not listed? Clearly, it's dangerous to have sexual thoughts while driving.

It's not as if people have a problem confessing to other distractions:

Operating a hands-free telecommunications device is No. 10, and operating devices such a laptop is No. 11.

Last on the list, at No. 12, is "driver grooming."

And lawmakers want laws, of course:
The hazards of driving while using a cellphone have not escaped the attention of lawmakers.

A report published in the summer 2006 issue of the journal Human Factors concluded, " ... the impairments associated with using a cellphone while driving can be as profound as those associated with driving while drunk."

In the last two years, the Legislature has considered a bill banning drivers from talking on handheld cellphones.

Washington, D.C., and states including Connecticut, New Jersey and New York already have such laws.

Merrill said troopers commonly observe drivers obviously distracted by their cellphones.

Yeah, so do I. My question is, if they're obviously distracted, why the hell don't the officers do their obvious job, and cite them for being obviously distracted? Instead, Patrol spokesman Merrill complains -- as if there's nothing they can do:
"You see them carrying on a very heated discussion on the telephone. You know by looking at them, and at their body language, and at their gesturing, that to a huge extent their attention is focused on the conversation they're having, rather than driving a car," Merrill said. "This is a very dangerous pastime."

For Merrill, there isn't much difference between driver impairment from using a cellphone or a BlackBerry.

"What's the difference, whether you're looking down at a cellphone number or a display on a BlackBerry?" he said.

Although the accident Tuesday morning caused no serious injuries, it disrupted southbound express-lane traffic heading into downtown Seattle for at least an hour.

The driver, who told troopers he'd been using his BlackBerry, was cited for following too closely, a $153 fine.

So why wasn't he also cited for impaired driving?

posted by Eric on 12.06.06 at 08:45 AM


'If you can't drive it, don't buy it' is a comment I find myself making frequently. It is often accompanied by a comment about how suburban drivers have completely lost the ability (assuming they ever had it) to do parallel parking in the city.

The greatest hazard on the road is other drivers and their lack of ability/control, including the various distractions you note.

John   ·  December 6, 2006 10:53 AM

I didn't want a mini van, but I have two kids and a tall husband and we were in pain every day trying to squish us all in a jetta wagon. (Here, I thought a wagon would be good enough for 4 people).

But, after the initial first week of freaking out, I back it up out of the garage and past our other car in the driveway every morning.

That thing has the most amazing wonderful side view mirrors! It's easier to back up than the cars are, thanks to them. :P

silvermine   ·  December 6, 2006 3:07 PM

My observation suggests that the biggest danger on the road is people talking to passengers.

Most specifically, doing so without resisting the apparently unstoppable urge to turn and face them while doing so.

(Which reminds me of an ages-old 60 Minutes "expose" on how dangerous cell phones were in a car. Our erstwhile reported demonstrated that he was completely incompetent - rather than that cellular phones are themselves dangerous - by holding the phone over the passenger seat, and turning his head and upper torso 90 degrees in order to dial.

The sensible among us hold a phone in front of us when dialing, so that it's trivial to watch the road between entering numbers, and so that background and peripheral vision are very likely to catch any sudden change in traffic conditions.

Knowing how 60 Minutes works, doubtless he invented that way of dialing because otherwise there wasn't any obvious threat from doing so.)

Sigivald   ·  December 6, 2006 3:08 PM

Good thoughtful comments. Silvermine, you're obviously a good driver, and a good driver can learn to drive any vehicle. It may be that the problem is that there are people who are just plain bad drivers, but their bad driving is accentuated by the size of an SUV, which makes them more visible. Someone who is spatially unaware just doesn't matter as much in a car.

Maybe there should be a requirement that people be good drivers in order to obtain a drivers license. I'd be willing to bet that professional drivers and accident specialists could come up with a REAL driving test that would weed these people out.

Whoops, I forgot! Such a test could never be implemented, because bad drivers would claim they were "discriminated" against. The incompetence I'm complaining about would be seen as mental or physical attributes with which they were born.

("Spatial unawareness syndrome" or something....)

Privileges are rights.

Eric Scheie   ·  December 6, 2006 8:33 PM

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