Killer Confidence: Texting While Behind The Wheel

At an event intended to show us the dangers of texting while driving, I question why we’re doing it at all, even when we know the cost.

A sickening thud under my front tires jolts me away from the text message I’m about to send to my mother.

The victim of my distracted driving is lying on the side of the road, folded at an unnatural angle. 

It’s an orange safety cone, and after being run over by the golf cart I’m driving, it might not be keeping anyone safe for a while. 

“I Love Cal State Fullerton”

On Friday, Nov. 15, Cal State Fullerton students from Professor Robert Quezada’s Feature Writing class gathered at a parking lot on campus to participate in an exercise demonstrating the dangerous outcomes of distracted driving. 

Officer Tom Perez of CSUF Police joined groups of three students in an electric golf cart as they navigated a course while trying to send a text message.

“All you have to do is type “I love Cal State Fullerton,” Perez told the group, before urging drivers to accelerate the cart to speeds upwards of 10 mph, a small fraction of the speeds drivers reach in their own cars.

 I’ll admit I scoffed internally at the challenge – after all, it was only five words. 

Unsurprisingly, most of us weren’t as good as we thought we were. I was much worse.

 The messages from my classmates varied from “I locution” to the almost-there-but-not-quite “I love cal sttt.”

 Mine said “I ghwejukj.” 

Our overestimation of our distracted driving abilities aren’t unusual.

Everyone thinks they’re an exception to the rule – but for the 3,166 people who died in accidents related to distracted driving in 2017, that was not the case. That statistic, reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Association, brings into sharp focus the potential price of distracted driving. 

My best friend was texting and driving when he crashed his truck going almost 70 MPH on a back road. The text never went through, but he managed to call his mom from the hospital to let her know he was not going to be home for dinner.

Those 23 characters cost a truck, a few thousand dollars in hospital bills and six weeks of healing time – but it could have been his life.

Back on the parking lot in Fullerton, with the lowest stakes possible, I still found it impossible to comfortably neglect what was outside the vehicle. Even then, I found myself overcorrecting to avoid one cone, only to annihilate another one.

At the very end of the course, a slightly larger cone had a sign announcing “Don’t Hit The Puppies!”, with a photo of  yawning Golden Retrievers. Running that one over stung a little more than the rest. 

More so than any of the damage done to cones, electric carts, or my ego, the most upsetting part of the activity was the indifference with which almost everyone walked away from it.

Everyday Activity

According to distracted driving prevention organization Teen Safe, 69 percent of U.S. drivers between the ages of 18 and 64 admitted to using their cell phone while driving during the previous month, a practice that increases the likelihood of a crash by 23 times. 

Despite this, most people who text and drive are bolstered by the same confirmation bias that encourages other dangerous habits, like drug usage or alcohol abuse.

 You know you shouldn’t do something – but then you do it once or twice anyway. When you face little to no consequences for it, you start to relax.

It’s a false comfort, and it’s shielding you from a deadly, unnecessary habit. 

Journalist Aline Holzworth researched why we’re so comfortable risking our lives for a text message. What she found out was exactly in line with what I witnessed during our exercise. 

“Researchers who study texting while driving find that their participants ‘have observed others driving erratically while using a cell phone, but these participants rarely, if ever, thought that their own driving was impaired when they used the cell phone.’ …. despite the fact that there is no benefit to practice (people who regularly use their cell phone while driving perform no better in studies than those with less real-life experience), the belief that we can manage persists.” 

Holzworth quotes the research of Dr. Allan F. Williams, who determined that three out of four people think they are above average drivers. She points out that this is a “statistical impossibility”. 

That confidence kills.

Just because something has never happened to you, doesn’t mean it never will. A distracted driver with an invincible attitude can crash as hard as anyone, and they increase those odds every time they tap out “On my way!”

Imagine the Worst 

As classmate after classmate ran down cones, mowed over puppies, and threw all their weight into oversteering, I couldn’t help but think about the damage that would be done if these were real cars.

“We have to pull people out of wreckages….over stupid, stupid stuff,” Perez told me as he pried another cone from the undercarriage of the cart. “I’ve seen things no one should have to imagine.”

I couldn’t help but think that maybe they should have to imagine it. 

We have gory PSA’s for smoking, drinking, and pirating DVDs, but we don’t show what happens when you’re eating a burrito and driving with your knees, an offense that can be even more deadly. 

Just ask my orange cone.

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