Common Tread

Driven to distraction: California texters and other drivers out to kill you

Jan 06, 2017

Among other laws that took effect at the stroke of midnight the other night, California changed a state distracted-driving law.

Technically, Assembly Bill 1785 fixes a quirk in Section 23123.5 of the California Vehicle Code. The old Section 231235 made it illegal to text while driving, unless your phone was equipped with a “hands-free” texting feature — i.e., you could legally dictate your texts. The change clarifies that you can't actually be holding the phone while driving.

Now, anyone who’s used speech-to-text functions knows that outgoing messages must be proofed prior to sending. Say for example you loan your truck to a friend who leaves crumbs on the seat. If you dictate, “Those crackers you were eating left a mess,” your iPhone’s likely to guess you meant, “Those crack whores you were meeting left their meth.”

So, deciding what you’re going to dictate, dictating your message, looking at your phone to proof it, making corrections, etc., is about as distracting and dangerous as thumbing it out. But lest you think that the California Assembly just banned texting by drivers no matter how it’s done, well, no; the Assembly actually enshrined your right to text while driving, as long as you’re not physically holding your phone. It’s perfectly legal now, as long as your phone’s stuck to your windshield with a suction cup.

As a motorcyclist, this $#!+ drives me crazy for several reasons. We’re about 35 times more likely to be injured or killed when we’re hit by distracted drivers. And don’t get me started about the wealth of research that confirms the fact that drivers using “hands-free” features are nearly as dangerous as drivers performing the same tasks one-handed. Yet by passing laws like AB1785, legislators send the message that the problem isn’t the distracting phone, it was only that drivers had to take a hand off the steering wheel to use it.

As a motorcyclist, I actually prefer if drivers have to hold their phone to their head to talk, or thumb out their texts the old-fashioned way. Because when they do that, I can see at a glance who’s not concentrating on their driving. That characteristic elbow-up hand-to-ear pose? Or the left-hand-only-on-wheel-face-turned-down-and-right of the freeway texter? Those warning signs prompt me to give those cars a wider berth. Giving those people hands-free devices makes them harder for me to spot.

So, in the spirit of a safer 2017 — in spite of inane laws like the one just enacted in California — here are a few tips I use to help me spot and avoid the worst rolling road hazards, whether the threat is a distracted driver or just an especially terrible one. Watch out for…

Cops. As if the threat of getting ticketed wasn’t bad enough, cops are the most chronically distracted drivers on the road. Have you been in a modern cop car? (Face down in handcuffs and a pool of your own vomit in the back seat doesn’t count.) Besides a radio, radar, and dash cams, most now have a full-sized computer and keyboard positioned so the driver can read and type. Although some departments have rules against use of dash computers while on the move, I frequently look over and see cops typing emails and reports while driving. I read about one incident where a driver was killed by a cop that was sending an email, and the victim’s family lost a lawsuit because the email was police business.

Cars filled with smoke. It’s politically incorrect to point out that smoking tobacco is a selective filter for stupidity, so I’ll merely say that as more and more states pass recreational marijuana laws, there’s a good chance that a car full of smoke means the driver’s high. This is especially true if the car remains stopped through several red/green traffic cycles. At least stoners are not likely speeding.

unsafe load
Do you really want to follow this guy down the highway? Photo by Mark Gardiner.

Filthy, trash-filled heaps running on three regular tires and one skinny spare. Cars with one headlight or a double-time flashing turn signal that means a bulb has burned out. Cars dragging mufflers or cars with bald tires. People who hate their cars are not usually good drivers.

Expired tags. Anyone can forget to renew their registration, but most cars running on long-expired tags are driven by someone who can’t renew their registration because they’ve lost their license, or don’t have/can’t get insurance. It sucks to get hit by any driver and you should avoid it at all costs; it sucks even more to get hit by someone who’s uninsured.

Cars in which you can not see a driver. I live about six blocks from Kansas City’s notorious 64130 zip code, aka "The Murder Factory." I suppose that may explain the guys (it’s always guys) I see driving around slumped so low, in seats so reclined, that their faces are not visible. I mean, they’re not gonna get shot in the head through their window, so that’s good. ProTip to assassins: Bullets travel in shallow arcs, but light travels in straight lines. If you can’t see their eyes, they can’t see you. And if their stereos shake store windows in passing, they can’t hear you coming, either.

Bumper stickers. Research has shown that cars with bumper stickers are more likely to be associated with aggressive driving and road-rage incidents. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to matter what the bumper stickers say. "Namaste" is as likely to cut you off as "Life insurance by Colt." Psychologists speculate that bumper stickers are territorial markers, applied by people who feel they own the part of the road they’re occupying.

damaged car
If they dented it once, they might well dent it again, using your motorcycle as a hammer. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

Visible body damage. It should go without saying that cars that get into accidents are more likely to get into accidents. So any time you share the road with a car that’s got body damage, you should be on the alert. Moreover, the location of damage on a car is often a clue to the specific mistakes that driver’s prone to making. Passenger-side wing mirror smashed off? Watch out for being sideswiped. Front bumper crumpled? That’s the guy who’s going to fail to notice your brake light. It’s amazing how often I’ve taken evasive action and realized that if I had not done so and hit the car, I would’ve hit a spot that’s already damaged.

Official estimates suggest about 3,000 Americans per year are killed in distracted-driving crashes. So, one 9-11’s worth of deaths per year. I suppose a cruise-missile attack on the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou where iPhones are made would be an overreaction, but telecommunications-industry lobbyists will continue to promote laws like California’s that reinforce the message that hands-free = OK. It’s as if drinking and driving would be all right if it wasn’t for the hand you use to hold that martini.

In the meantime, if you have additional tips and tricks you use to avoid distracted (or simply lousy) drivers, please share them in the comments section.