Last week I nearly saw two people die. Neither of them even noticed.
I was sitting at an intersection, waiting for a red light to flip in my favor. From my right, an SUV barreled toward the junction. They had a red light, but they didn’t seem to notice — or at least, they weren’t slowing down.
On the opposite side of the intersection, an older model Honda Prelude was entering the left turning lane with a protected green arrow ushering them on. They had the right-of-way, and they were set on taking it.
Both cars were coming fast, seemingly oblivious that their paths were about to cross in the most violent of ways. How was this possible? Why would the SUV just blatantly ignore the red light staring back at them? Even with a protected arrow, how was the Prelude not noticing the 5,000 pound missile charging their way?
As the scene pieced together in my head, my knuckles went white around the steering wheel. Both cars entered the intersection, nary a brake light in sight. I cringed, took a deep breath, and…
Nothing. The two cars missed each other by a distance no greater than that of my laptop’s display and my face as I type this. The turning Prelude slipped right in front of the SUV, avoiding a collision by fractions-of-a-fraction of a second.
For but an instant, I got a perfect (if fleeting) view of the drivers. Both of their heads were tilted down. Both faces were bathed in that signature blue-white hue of a display, eyes focused on something at knee level. It all made so… much… sense.
They were both texting.
Shocked at what had (and hadn’t) happened, I did the only thing I could think of: I turned (legally!) to follow the SUV, read their plates, pulled over, and called the cops.
In telling this story to a group of friends over dinner a few nights later, most reacted the same way: Shock, a somber nod to our mortality and the faith we put in other drivers, as well as some sort of verbal highfive for grabbing at least one of the two car’s plates.
To a smaller chunk of the group, however, I was somehow the bad guy in this story.
Not because I sat and watched (what else could I do?). Not because I didn’t somehow go all “Kyle X/Y” and work out a way to warn both cars and eliminate any potential catastrophe. But because I reported one of the drivers, and had stated that I would do the same any time I noticed someone texting while driving in any capacity that made me feel unsafe.
Their logic was bewildering.
“I can text and drive just fine. I’m a good enough driver,” said one.
“I’ve got a system,” said the other. A system.
I’ve brought the matter up with a dozen or so other friends since, and the results are pretty consistent: While most openly loathe those who text and drive, a shockingly high number of them justified the act on a driver-by-driver basis. This was amongst a group of people I consider to be quite smart.
These ideas of having a “system” for texting while driving, or that one simply needs to be a “good enough driver”… they’re ridiculous. Bullshit, even. Any “system” for texting and driving only works until that instant where it doesn’t. And then you’re dead, or worse yet, you’ve killed someone else.
Now, perhaps I’m steering this post in the wrong direction. This post isn’t meant to lecture. A million words have been written for that, and anyone dumb enough to think they can drive without actually looking at the road won’t be convinced by the words of a stranger on the Internet.
Instead, this post is meant to ask: should we report other drivers for texting and driving, the same way we would report a drunk driver?
I say yes. A million times yes.
The two acts are, in many ways, one in the same. Both limit your ability to react quickly, hinder your awareness of everything around you, and are conscious decisions made by drivers at the expense of everyone’s safety.
In many ways, though, texting and driving is even more despicable than driving under the influence. There is no grey area. There is no BAC to estimate, no ever-varying personal tolerances to try to justify. It’s completely binary. You’re either doing it, or you’re not. (Oh, and the early studies suggest that it’s just straight up worse.)
I asked a number of cops for their stance on this, and they all echoed each other: if you live in a state where texting and driving is illegal, by all means call it in. If they’ve got a trooper in the area, they’ll be put on the lookout. They can’t do much if they don’t witness it themselves. But if multiple reports come in for the same car, it’ll be flagged as having a potentially unsafe driver. What that means varies from county to county, from cops stopping by the registered owner’s home for a verbal warning to an increased likelihood that they’ll be pulled over, if a curious cop runs their plates.
Even if a cop catches someone in the act, though, the punishment is generally little more than a slap on the wrist. In nearly all 35 states where texting and driving is illegal, the punishment for repeat offenders is purely monetary, with fees capping out at a few hundred dollars. Meanwhile, the jerks who drink and drive lose their license, and potentially face jail time. Shouldn’t all flagrant disregard for the safety of others be met with the same severity? Texting may seem more innocent and thus worthy of a lesser punishment — but is it really?
(Interestingly, some states do strip the licenses of those caught in the act… but only if they’re under 18. Wait, what? Yeah, new drivers need to be particularly careful of each and every move, but does turning 18 really make the act any less dangerous?)
Of course, opening this can of worms leads to plenty of other questions: Is texting while stopped at a light, or while waiting for a train to pass, worthy of the same punishment as texting while cruising down the road at 40 MPH? I’d say no. Is texting on the freeway a worse offense than texting on a main street? I’d say they’re each pretty bad for their own reasons. Is it about the speed, the location, or some combination thereof? I’d say, the last one.
Perhaps the laws will catch up with the logic at some point. In the meantime, I’ll keep callin’ them in whenever it makes me feel unsafe. I urge everyone else to do the same.
[Image Credit: Shutterstock]