Dangerous distraction

The use of cell phones and other wireless devices while driving has led to an increasing number of accidents due to driver inattention.

“Hey mom, what did you need at the store?”

Junior John Kaleekal was driving down Quivira to Price Chopper, talking to his mother.

“It was dark, and I lost attention for a little bit,” Kaleekal said.

Photo by FreyermuthDuring this short conversation, the car veered slightly into the oncoming traffic lane. Luckily, Kaleekal moved in enough time to avoid a crash, but his experience caused him to change his driving habits.

“The strange thing is, it was the first time I had used my phone behind the wheel,” Kaleekal said.

Unfortunately, situations like this are becoming more common, but with more serious consequences.

Distracted driving, especially due to cell phone usage, is on the rise. As a result, Kansas legislators have banned texting and calling while driving for drivers with a permit or restricted license. Drivers under 21 in Missouri can be pulled over for texting (see sidebar). This lack of attention has increased mistakes on the road.

“Distracted driving is increasing; it’s a proven fact,” said Joe Harder, owner of Harder Performance Driving School. “Drivers need to protect themselves from all those other yahoos on the road.”

According to a 2009 Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study, “Driver Distraction in Commercial Vehicle Operations,” the No. 1 cause for distraction is a wireless device. “Now, I never use my phone while driving,” Kaleekal said. “I think it’s important to be focused while you’re on the road.”

Harder said drivers who eat, apply makeup and, especially, use their phones are putting themselves at risk. In fact, he said, distracted drivers are more susceptible to a crash than a drunk driver.

There is no need to text and drive at the same time,” Harder said.

Still, many drivers use a wireless device on the road, decreasing their awareness of the road and increasing their chances of making mistakes.

Harder has had his own personal experiences with distracted driving, but now he emphasizes the dangers of it to each of his students.

“When I was in high school, I turned away to punch in a new radio station and didn’t even leave two or three feet of rubber in between myself and the car in front of me,” Harder said. “It only took me a second to look at the radio, and I’d rear-ended him.”

Harder Performance warns their student drivers against distracted driving by teaching defensive driving techniques. The school also encourages students to develop good habits, such as keeping both hands on the wheel and avoiding cell phone use and other distractions, like eating or drinking in the car.

“Drivers need to have their ‘A’ game on and cat-like reflexes when they’re behind the wheel,” Harder said.

Even though the dangers of distracted driving are proven, accidents due to distracted driving are increasing.

“In 2008, one of my new Mustangs was totaled because some girl blew threw a four-lane intersection because she had ‘something in her eye,’” Harder said. “Well, you know, she didn’t get much sympathy from the people at the insurance company.”

Kaleekal has learned from his mistakes, but still thinks many people aren’t careful enough.

“Some people underestimate what could happen and think they can text and talk on the phone,” Kaleekal said. “The worst consequences could follow if you get in a crash. You could take a life all for a phone call.”

-Rachel Alvey