Chow time or drive time? Decision yours; risk ours

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Are articles on "distracted driving" driving you to distraction?

Despite my seemingly endless thoughts on this subject, I just have to bring it up one more time, because this is one of the top causes of traffic collisions, and some of us are not getting the message.

We all have our stories of distracted drivers, but after 35 years in law enforcement I recently witnessed something that was a first for me.

A few days ago I was just walking through the Police Department parking lot and saw a driver on Rose Street. She had a cereal bowl in one hand and a spoon in the other while steering with the back of her hand, and she was driving in fairly heavy traffic!

One of the truisms that this behavior illustrates is that we often fail to appreciate the potential danger present during the familiar act of driving a vehicle.

We never really know when our ability to react may be the difference between a near miss and a life-changing collision. This was once again brought home to me on the Fourth of July in the oddest circumstances.

Just before the public fireworks display began, I was patrolling the Fort Walla Walla grounds near the amphitheater. Cars were parked on each side of the road, and because it was dark and children were running around, I was doing about 5 mph. The first volley of loud boomers went off signaling the beginning of the fireworks show.

Literally, in the blink of an eye, I saw a tan-colored blur cross within feet of the front of my patrol car. I then realized that a deer had been spooked by the fireworks, raced at full speed between two cars and narrowly missed colliding with my car. Fortunately, neither the deer nor any spectators were hurt.

The latest distraction is listening to sports on the car radio. A study out of England claims that this can be as dangerous as driving while intoxicated, and it can slow down reaction time up to 20 percent. Some of you are probably thinking, "Oh, come on now; this is too much!"

However, the reality is that safe driving requires our full attention, and we pay a huge price, because as a society, we are not willing to give this task the respect it deserves. The extent to which we allow these distractions to intrude upon our driving directly relates to our opportunity to avoid collisions.

In 2009 in Walla Walla, drivers were unable to avoid collisions 1,116 times.

In the case of our friend with the bowl of cereal, if someone suddenly pulled out in front of her, she would unconsciously have had to take the time to decide if she should drop the cereal and the spoon in her lap and grab the wheel, as well as deciding how hard she would have to hit the brake to stop but not spill the cereal.

I am here to tell you, not spilling the cereal in her car would probably have won, and she would have hit or been hit by the car pulling out. We can and should do better than this.

According to AAA President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet, "Nearly 43,000 people die on the nation's roadway each year, yet the annual tally of motor vehicle related fatalities barely registers as a blip on most people's minds." The annual cost is $164.2 billion annually or $1,051 per person.

It is easy to underestimate or dismiss the risks involved in distracted driving. Driving is often secondary to other concerns, such as how to eat out of a bowl while on the way back to work.

Are we giving the proper amount of attention and respect to driving a 3,000-pound automobile that it deserves?

Capt. Gary Bainter is Patrol Division commander for the Walla Walla Police Department. He can be reached at gbainter@ci.walla-walla.wa.us or 524-4372.

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