Swickard: Trying to impair the urge to be impaired

© 2015 Michael Swickard, Ph.D.  At a traffic light the car in front of me did not move when the light turned green. The driver's head was down, I suspect looking at text messages. After angry honking finally caused the person to look up and realize the light changed, the person made it through the light just as it turned red.
            The rest of us had to wait through another light cycle. I suspect several drivers went back to their cell phones while waiting. It made me think of the good old days of driving when there were fewer distractions. However, it is a fact there have always been things that distracted drivers from their task with the road.
            In the 1970s while working for a television station I went to the scene of a wreck and was talking to a driver who confessed the wreck was the fault of his cigar. "My cigar slipped out of my mouth and fell into my lap." he explained. Evidently the fire in his lap caused him to take his attention off the road. Bam!
            Paul and Joseph Galvin were the developers of car radios around 1930. Once installed, the radio gave the joy of entertainment but was one more reason for drivers to take their eyes off the road. It is hard to estimate how many people have died because of car radios.
            There have also been beverages. One morning while leaving a small town I was holding a convenience store cup of fresh coffee. Concurrent to increasing my speed I was adjusting the radio when I looked up and a fellow in bib-overalls on a tractor was suddenly in front of me.
            Out of instinct I clutched the paper coffee cup while applying the brakes thereby pouring very hot coffee all over myself. The rest of the day I had massive coffee stains but our guardian angels kept us from colliding.
            It seems to me that now our society has many more distracted drivers. Years ago primarily it was people who drank and drove that killed thousands upon thousands of people. In just the last ten years the distractibility index has zoomed. With the advent of cell phones, texting and video on demand it's a wonder that some young people and some not so young people are still alive.
            Part of the problem is knowing why vehicles collide. Often it is that the orbits and trajectories of the vehicles violate the law of not trying to occupy the same space at the same time. At least the textbook way of driving says running into things is a drag.
            There are many theories on how to stop distracted driving. We see several broad categories of impairment: alcohol, drugs, sleep deprivation and physical distractions. These impairments are facts.
            Wherever you were last night, somewhere near you someone was behind the wheel of a car and was impaired. All good theories on how to combat such activity have a prescriptive component: If we as a society do this, then that will happen.
            Some impaired drivers are caught, adjudicated and incarcerated. Many more offend day after week after month after year. We wake to headlines proclaiming a family was slaughtered by an impaired driver. The media captures the offender's sad face when realizing the effect of their actions.
            The major impairment theory in America is that threats of a penalty will change behavior. The penalties for impaired driving have been increasing as politicians stand before the cameras and proclaim that they have a solution for this scourge: they will pass tougher and tougher penalties.
            Can we as a society be tough? Can we elevate the penalties for impaired driving to the point that it disappears? For example, what if we took away a driver’s license for five years on a first offense? Second time, forever and ever. Would that work?
            The problem is that every weekend even after twenty-five years of DWI heavy enforcement there are people still being caught. Maybe texting while driving should automatically forfeit the car and serve time in jail. Are we tough enough to be that tough? Or have we become too soft to act? We must impair the urge to be impaired while driving.



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